Ulster poll row dashes peace hopes

Major accused of 'buying' votes
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Hopes of breaking the deadlock in the Northern Ireland peace process ran into serious trouble last night as nationalist parties accused John Major of trying to buy votes from the Ulster Unionists to prop up his Government in the Commons.

The proposal to insert an election into the talks process, thus holding up negotiations for some months, was denounced by the SDLP leader, John Hume, as a device intended merely to shore up the Tories' shrinking majority.

The Irish and British governments now face a serious obstacle in the road to peace, after the report by US Senator George Mitchell had earlier raised hopes of a breakthrough. He concluded that there was no realistic chance of paramilitary groups de-commissioning weapons in advance of all- party talks, and suggested instead that parties should be required to give a series of assurances of their commitment to non-violent means.

Within hours of the generally favourable welcome for the Mitchell report, Mr Major, speaking in the Commons, in effect rejected its approach by proposing instead that Northern Ireland parties should stand for election to a new body, which would have a role in negotiations.

The election plan was immediately placed in doubt when Mr Hume angrily accused Mr Major of trying to buy the support of Ulster Unionist MPs. Mr Hume was booed by Tory MPs, while Mr Major warned that after working for years to bring people together for peace, it would be "a tragedy of enormous proportions" if he became the barrier to a settlement.

The Irish government was also sceptical and, privately, deeply concerned about the election strategy, which Dublin sources said had been inadequately discussed. "There's nothing in it for the nationalists," said one. Dublin sources accused Mr Major of in effect ditching the report and of going on an unsettling "solo run" which had raised suspicions across the range of nationalism.

Sinn Fein's president Gerry Adams accused Mr Major of acting in bad faith and of erecting a fresh precondition aimed at keeping his party out of talks. Republican sources said the election announcement had in effect killed off the Mitchell report and showed Mr Major was following a Unionist agenda in an attempt to win Unionist backing for the Government.

The election move completely overshadowed the report of the international body and introduced a stark new fault-line, with the Government and Unionists on one side and nationalist opinion on the other.

Mr Major last night sought to rescue the initiative and ease the fears of the nationalists by insisting that the new, elected body would be restricted to appointing negotiating teams and would not have legislative or administrative powers such as the previous Stormont regime had wielded.

British ministers fear that the rejection of both routes to all-party talks - prior decommissioning and the elections - could leave the peace process in a cul-de-sac.

While the Government may seek to move on with the elections, challenging the parties to show their commitment to democratic means by taking part, and Mr Hume stopped short of threatening to boycott the elections, his rejection of the plan - first proposed by the Ulster Unionists - could still prove to be the catalyst for a fresh crisis.

Mr Major last night sought to reassure Mr Hume, saying in a Channel 4 interview:"I think what John fears is that the electoral route will be a rerun of the problems that existed in the 1960s and 1970s with the powers that those bodies had."

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, offered bipartisan support to enable an emergency Bill to be passed through Parliament to call the elections by April or May. But some of his own MPs - led by the former Northern Ireland spokesman Kevin McNamara - joined Mr Hume in rejecting the election plan and accused Mr Major of seeking to keep power with Unionist support.

Mitchell details, page 2

Andrew Marr, page 2

New focus, same crisis, page 15

'Six commitments all parties should make'

These are the key principles that the Mitchell Report says all sides should embrace:

t Democratic and exclusively peaceful means of resolving political issues.

t The total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations.

t Agree that disarmament must be verifiable.

t Renounce the use or threat of force to influence the course or the outcome of all-party negotiations.

t Agree to abide by the terms of any agreement reached in all-party negotiations and to use exclusively peaceful methods to try to alter any part of it with which they disagree.

t Urge that "punishment" killings and beatings stop, and to take effective steps to prevent these.