THE PROSPECTS for peace in Northern Ireland hung in the balance last night as yesterday's historic Anglo-Irish declaration turned the pressure on the IRA to renounce violence and join talks with the British government within three months.
After a cool initial reaction from Belfast republicans, and amid uncertainty over the response from Protestant extremists, John Major used a rare prime ministerial broadcast last night to call on the people of Northern Ireland to 'put the poison of history behind us'.
He declared, 'We cannot go on spilling blood in the name of the past,' and added: 'There is no excuse, no justification and no future for the use of violence in Northern Ireland.'
Yesterday's declaration, announced at a noon Downing Street press conference by Mr Major and Albert Reynolds, cleared the way for all-party talks next year - to include Sinn Fein if the IRA renounces violence - for a lasting constitutional settlement which could be put to separate referendums in the North and South. Mr Major said: 'We have an option for peace. Whether that option is picked up lies with the men of violence not with us.' The bitterest reaction came from Ian Paisley who, before reading the declaration, chillingly denounced Mr Major: 'You have sold Ulster to buy off the fiendish republican scum. You will learn in a bitter school that all appeasement of these monsters is self-destructive.'
But James Molyneaux, leader of the Ulster Unionists, while seeking and receiving detailed asssurances from Mr Major, carefully refrained from attacking the declaration in the Commons. Mr Major's broadcast came after he won praise and all-party support - with the exception of Mr Paisley's hard line Democratic Unionists - for the joint declaration he had agreed with the Taoiseach. In it, Mr Reynolds joins Britain in underlining that no change to Northern Ireland's status will take place without the consent of its majority while the Government accepts a united Ireland could be achieved by peaceful means.
In the Commons yesterday, Doug Hoyle, Labour MP for Warrington - bombed this year - said: 'Now is the time to give peace a chance. If any of them fail to take up this chance they will never be forgiven.'
President Bill Clinton warmly praised Mr Major and Mr Reynolds for their 'courage' and 'vision'.
Sinn Fein promised to study the declaration, but a spokesman claimed: 'Already the general reaction among many nationalists is one of disappointment.' High-ranking British officials acknowledged last night that the most difficult negotiation was over the paragraph 4 in which the Government reiterates that it has no 'selfish, strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland'.
In one of the paragraphs causing most anxiety to Unionists, because of its implication of British neutrality over the long-term future of the province, the declaration adds that 'it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone . . . to exercise their right of self determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a United Ireland, if that is their wish'.
The hope is that this will be enough to meet the Sinn Fein and IRA demand for Britain to acknowledge the right to self-determination of the Irish people. John Hume, Social Democratic and Labour Party leader, said last night that he would be resuming talks with Gerry Adams, president of Sein Fein, in the hope of helping to secure a 'cessation of violence'.
Mr Hume told MPs he hoped the declaration - 'one of the most comprehensive in the past 70 years' - would be the 'first major step on a road that will remove for ever the gun and the bomb from our small island people'.
Major's game plan, page 2
How the door opened, page 3
Text of statement, page 4
Leading article, page 19
Andrew Marr, page 21
Conor Cruise O'Brien, page 21
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