Hume may have urged delay of Blair North statement


MR TONY BLAIR yesterday postponed his planned statement on Northern Ireland policy after a morning of intensive consultations involving Dr Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, and Mr John Hume, the leader of the SDLP.

There was speculation at Westminster last night that Mr Hume might have persuaded Mr Blair to defer his statement - believed to contain a hard hitting attack on Sinn Fein and the IRA - to win some time for his efforts, and those of the incoming Irish government, to create the conditions for a new IRA ceasefire.

However, there were clear signs that the Northern Ireland Office is eager for a prime ministerial statement, with suggestions that one could not be ruled out over the next few days.

The British Prime Minister leaves London for Denver later today for the G7 summit, where he is scheduled to have intensive discussions about the North with President Clinton.

With Mr Blair due to attend a United Nations conference in New York on Monday, the statement might not be made before the middle of next week. There were indications last night that it might come by way of an alternative medium, possibly in the form of a newspaper article.

Number 10 Downing Street last night again refused to confirm even the existence of the statement attempting to cast yesterday morning's meeting between Mr Blair, Dr Mowlam and Mr Home as just another in the continuing round of consultations with the Northern party leaders.

It has emerged that two of the other main Northern party leaders were briefed on Wednesday night to expect a statement in the Commons yesterday, as indicated in yesterday's Irish Times. Irish sources confirmed that the Maryfield Secretariat had alerted Dublin that a statement was indeed expected. And, on advice, the political editors of Ulster Television and BBC Northern Ireland had travelled to Westminster to cover it.

Mr Hume could not be contacted about his meeting with Mr Blair, but close observers had little doubt that he would have sought to persuade the Prime Minister against delivering a statement which was apparently "very tough" and tantamount to pushing the talks process forward without Sinn Fein while not actually closing the door on the possibility of another ceasefire.

Alternative explanations for the postponement were canvassed. One suggestion was that it came down to a simple question of news management - with the government's own story about the Millennium scheme and the Tory leadership election already dominating the news bulletins. Another source suggested that the funerals of the two murdered RUC officers and the "atmospherics" in the North made yesterday unsuitable for a major policy statement. However, political sources observed that these factors would have been known to the government well in advance.

The government's intentions were certainly attended by a measure of chaos, confusion and uncertainty. By midmorning yesterday, sources were saying that the statement was set to be delivered. Soon after, Downing Street signal led that it was "unlikely". By 1.20 p.m., no "firm decision" had apparently been made, and it was only at about 2.30 p.m. that Number 10 finally indicated that there would be no statement.

With Dr Mowlam addressing American journalists over lunch, it remained unclear when the decision was actually taken, or who was party to it. However, the NIO last night dismissed reports that Mr Blair's statement had been postponed to give the Northern Secretary time to rework her paper on arms decommissioning.