Hume walked out of meeting with Blair for backing Major


THE Labour Party's bipartisan support for the British Prime Minister's conduct of the peace process appeared unaffected last night by mounting SDLP criticism.

Sources in both parties confirmed that Mr John Hume the SDLP leader, walked out of a meeting with Mr Tony Blair last Thursday morning, apparently frustrated and angry at Labour's tacit support for Mr Major's plan for elections in the North as a precursor to all party talks. The SDLP deputy leader, Mr Seamus Mallon, is reported to have concluded the pre arranged meeting soon after Mr Hume's departure.

Senior Labour sources said yesterday Mr Blair, and the shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Dr Mo Mowlam, hope to resume talks with Mr Hume at Westminster later this week. However, when asked whether the SDLP criticism was placing the bipartisan policy under strain - as reported in one newspaper yesterday the sources replied. Categorically not."

One source, close to Mr Blair suggested the fallout had been exaggerated, before adding: "John Hume ought to be looking for friends rather than losing them at this stage."

It emerged last night"that the SDLP has been pressing Mr Blair to consider the introduction of proportional representation for future Westminster elections in the North. But while that issue would be bound up in any referendum a Labour government might hold on the issue of electoral reform in the United Kingdom, it is understood Mr Blair offered no view "on PR specific to Northern Ireland".

Mr Mallon, who is due to meet Mr Major on Tuesday, said his party had no problem facing elections but wanted negotiations, not the artifice of a 90 man assembly. Last Saturday, he described the proposal for an elected body if the IRA did not getting rid of its weapons as a smokescreen to hide Britain's rejection of the Mitchell commission report.

He said on GMTV: "We will be asking him if he has rejected the central element, the central part of Mr Mitchell's report. And we will also be letting him know in no uncertain terms that the time is over in Northern Ireland when the minority nationalist community, can be treated in an arbitrary way.

He accused Mr Blair of supporting the British government "willy nilly" over the row about elections to a new forum for the North.