Unionists raise stakes with a threat to topple Major

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A thinly-veiled threat to bring down the Government by a leading Ulster Unionist last night raised the stakes for a meeting today at which senior Cabinet ministers will consider a compromise formula for elections in Northern Ireland.

A mixed or "hybrid" system of elections to a Northern Ireland peace forum designed to secure the maximum consensus of the main parties is expected to be among the options considered by the Northern Ireland Cabinet Committee.

But the chances of such a formula being rejected by the Ulster Unionists were substantially increased when John Taylor, deputy leader, claimed that a consultation paper outlining the framework for the all-party talks which will follow the elections "must return to the drawing board".

In some of the most threatening terms used by a senior Ulster Unionist in the latest phase of the process towards a political settlement, Mr Taylor said last night: "The Dublin government must cease yielding to IRA blackmail and the London government must learn to stand on its own feet. If it is incapable then the sooner we have a general election the better."

Mr Taylor's fury over the wording of a joint Anglo-Irish consultation paper stems partly from what he detects as a softening of the two governments' demand on the IRA to start decommissioning arms before talks progress. The document says the demands on decommissioning in the Mitchell report need to be "addressed" rather than honoured before talks can go further.

Mr Taylor also complained that provision in the paper for a joint London- Dublin co-ordination committee to tackle problems in the peace process meant the Government had "hijacked the elected body" and taken away from the Northern Ireland parties their right to to "structure their all-party talks".

No decisions have yet been taken on what system to use for the elections - likely to be at the end of May - which are intended to lead swiftly to all-party talks starting on 10 June. But at least one system to be considered by ministers today envisages 110 representatives elected on the German model of a mixture of constituencies and an additional list of party nominees without constituency.

There is still strong pressure from Tory backbenchers for the Government to back the Ulster Unionists' preferred system which would use the existing 18 parliamentary constituencies with five members in each being elected to the forum.

In contrast, both the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party want a single-constituency system from which the 90 successful candidates would be chosen from one province-wide ballot paper.

It remains possible, however, that the Government will come down in favour of the UUP preferred system, and offer the nationalists the referendum north and south of the border that John Hume has been seeking.