What price to shore up the Tories?

Ulster Unionists could make or break this government, but Major holds the trump card, says Colin Brown
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By relying on the support of the Ulster Unionists to steer the Government through to a general election in 1997, John Major is playing for high stakes. Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, interrupted his new year recess yesterday to reassure the Dublin government that the defection of Emma Nicholson to the Liberal Democrats may have changed the arithmetic in the Commons, but it has not changed government policy.

The Government would not allow itself to be in hock to the Ulster Unionists, he insisted. "The Government will do its duty according to what it considers to be right," he said. He clearly felt he had to redress the balance after Ken Maginnis, the Ulster Unionists' security spokesman, had played his party's ace card, confirming at the weekend that the UUP would support the Government in a confidence vote - providing it was in the interests of Northern Ireland.

There are parallels here with the last days of the Labour government in the late Seventies, when Jim Callaghan depended on the votes of an odd alliance of the minor nationalist parties to keep going from day to day, not knowing when the end would come. The gas pipeline now under construction between Scotland and Northern Ireland is iron testimony to the bargaining that may go on in the smoke-filled rooms when a government has lost its majority.

Although its completion required a change in European rules, the pipeline was first mooted by Labour ministers in talks with some of the Northern Ireland MPs on whom the Callaghan government was relying after its Lib- Lab pact broke down.

Ultimately, not even the promise of a gas pipeline could keep that government alive; the plug was finally pulled by Frank Maguire, an Independent Irish nationalist who travelled from his pub in Fermanagh and South Tyrone to abstain in person in the confidence vote on 28 March, 1979.

Labour lost by 311 votes to 310, and his abstention brought the Government down in a night of high Commons drama. I can recall Dennis Skinner pulling at Mr Maguire's sleeve, pleading with him behind the Speaker's chair to save Labour from disaster, as the voting took place. Immediately after the vote Mr Callaghan announced he would go to the country. Two days later, at around 3pm on 30 March, we witnessed one of the bloody consequences of that vote when Airey Neave, Margaret Thatcher's chief strategist and who would have been the next Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was murdered, killed by an INLA car bomb as he drove up the exit ramp of the members' car park under Big Ben.

The two events - the fall of the Government with an Irish abstention, and the assassination of Airey Neave - underline the risks facing Mr Major if he makes a false move in his approach to the 12 Ulster Unionists now offering to come to his aid. On the one hand, Mr Major needs the support of the Ulstermen to buy time for his Government while they wait for the upturn in the economy and another tax-cutting Budget before a spring 1997 election. On the other hand, prevarication could imperil the peace process and prompt a return of the bloody violence.

There is fanciful talk at Westminster of a place in a Tory cabinet for David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, but there will be no formal pact with the Unionists. The price that Mr Trimble will exact in return for the votes of the nine UU MPs and Ian Paisley's three Democratic Unionist Party MPs is nothing as crude as a piece of pipeline or a seat at Cabinet.

Mr Trimble has set out two key demands: no compromise on the Government's insistence that the IRA should begin decommissioning before Sinn Fein can be admitted to the all-party talks on the future of Northern Ireland; and early elections in Northern Ireland to a new Ulster body.

The idea of an elected body was included at Mr Major's insistence in the "twin-track" agreement with John Bruton on the eve of President Clinton's visit in late November. That agreement also established the timetable for producing a report on decommissioning and moving towards all-party talks by mid-February.

Mr Major is convinced that elections to a body, which would do nothing more than appoint negotiating teams to the all-party talks, would help to break the impasse in the peace process. But the nationalists suspect it is a device to produce what has always been the Ulster Unionists' agenda: an internal settlement based on a power-sharing assembly directly elected in Ulster.

If these fears can be overcome, elections could take place by the summer. But if the nationalists refuse to endorse the elections, no amount of pressure from the Ulster Unionists on Mr Major will make them work.

On arms decommissioning, the Ulster Unionists believe Mr Major to be a man of his word and privately do not think he will give way. Mr Major puts it more prosaically. There is no point compromising on the decommissioning issue, because the Ulster Unionists would not sit down at the negotiating table unless the IRA had made some progress on getting rid of its arms, he says. The Mitchell commission is due to report in mid-January, a deadline that MPs believe is hopelessly optimistic and will have to be extended.

Time is not on Mr Major's side. He does, of course, have another option: to resist any deal-making and instead tell the Ulster Unionists bluntly that if they wish to pull down the whole house of cards and elect a Labour government, they can do so. That is Mr Major's trump card, and it may come in handy in the agonising months that lie ahead.