Ulster poll plan expected as Unionists cool row

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Political Editor

The Government is expected this week announce its plan for Northern Ireland elections which could take place as early as next month, along with a referendum on both sides of the border, as the first step towards all party talks in June.

That became clear yesterday as a leading Ulster Unionist yesterday sought to calm the new row between his party and the Government as fresh details emerged on how ministers intend to proceed to the long-awaited all-party talks on Ulster's future on 10 June.

David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, had reacted angrily to a consultation document which appeared to give the Irish government some say in the progression of all-party talks. But as the Northern Ireland Office released the document, Ken Maginnis, the party's security spokesman, said: "I haven't got terribly excited about the document."

In addition to setting up a "co-ordinating committee" composed of representatives of both governments to deal with the talks, the document also makes clear that the first session of all-party talks would "address" rather than oblige all parties, including Sinn Fein, immediately to honour the conditions on decommissioning set down by the Mitchell report.

But as Mr Maginnis made it clear that the Ulster Unionists would definitely take part in the talks, the party was increasingly hopeful that the Cabinet Committee on Northern Ireland would favour a version of the multi-constituency electoral system for the polls when it meets on Tuesday. The proposal requires less cumbersome legislation and it seems unlikely that the Government will risk another rupture with Mr Trimble by choosing the single constituency favoured by the nationalists.

A statement from the Government is expected on Thursday concerning the system for elections to the body from which representatives taking part in the talks would be chosen. The Government is also thought to be warming to the idea of a referendum designed to underline the opposition to violence on both sides of the border. The pre-talks referendum would be warmly welcomed by John Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

The document also says that if it is impossible to achieve unanimity in the all-party talks, they could proceed on a "consensus among the political parties". But any such departure from unanimity would have to result in a decision acceptable to majorities of both the nationalist and unionist communities. Parties who fail to win places on the convention which appoints the negotiating body - such as the two small parties linked to loyalist paramilitaries - would have observer status.

Finally, the document also makes it explicitly clear that only parties renouncing violence will take part.

Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Minister said on BBC TV's Breakfast with Frost: "There is always a temptation when people react to documents or consultation papers, to pick out something that you think is a problem. "But this is only one of three documents that is in circulation at the present time.

"What I would be saying to all the leaders is `look at all the documentation in its totality. It is consultation by both governments with the parties'."