Unionists offer lifeline to Major

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The Ulster Unionists yesterday offered to throw John Major a lifeline to enable his Government to survive until 1997, but at the price of holding firm in its demands for the IRA to begin disarming before Sinn Fein can join all-party talks.

The increasing influence of the 12 Ulster Unionists in the Commons arithmetic will alarm the Irish government. Assurances that they will not be able to exact a change of policy will be sought before the two Prime Ministers meet again, possibly in late January.

But a leading Tory backbench MP, Peter Temple-Morris, warned Mr Major he could not trust the Ulster Unionists to back him.

Mr Temple-Morris, co-chairman of the British-Irish Parliamentary body, said: "Having observed them pretty closely during 1976 to 1979, you couldn't trust them then, and you cannot trust them now. They are not what I would call a fully national party. They see everything in terms of their own region. I think Ireland transcends party politics. We have an historic opportunity now which is of greater importance than the next general election."

He added: "I hope that the Mitchell commission will come up with very strong recommendations aimed at the IRA on the one hand and the British government on the other. Providing they come up with reasonable recommendations for the IRA to begin decommissioning, we should use that as an excuse to get off the hook of preliminary decommissioning."

The nine Ulster Unionists and the three DUP MPs, led by Ian Paisley, have a pivotal role in Parliament, following the defection of Emma Nicholson to the Liberal Democrats.

The pressure from Dublin and Irish Nationalists on Mr Major to give way is expected to increase after the report, due in two weeks, by the Mitchell Commission on dealing with the IRA weapons. There are doubts that it will be able to find a way through the impasse.

The Ulster Unionists, led by David Trimble, are willing to support the Government as long as Mr Major sticks to the existing policy of insisting on a start being made to decommissioning before Sinn Fein can take a seat at the negotiating table.

"We are going to try to support the Government in the foreseeable future," said Ken Maginnis, the Ulster Unionist spokesman on security.

"The only thing we are talking about here are votes of confidence. If there was a vote of no confidence tomorrow we would have to ask ourselves: Is it worth bringing them down? The answer is no," said Mr Maginnis.

The three Democratic Unionist MPs will put pressure on Mr Major to embrace the plan for a directly elected assembly for Ulster to appoint negotiating teams for all-party talks, although the idea has been dismissed by the nationalist SDLP leader John Hume, and has failed convince John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister.

The rise in killings of alleged drug dealers in Belfast has raised fears that the IRA could be inching back towards violence, thus threatening the peace process. Those fears are likely to be increased if no way round the impasse is found, and Sinn Fein remain barred from all-party talks.