Major rejects claim of sell out to IRA

 

MR John Major repeatedly stressed yesterday that his government had not "sold out" to the IRA by announcing a fixed date for all party talks.

After making a statement on the communique to the House of Commons, Mr Major rejected the suggestion by several Tory backbenchers that he had "sold out", but he agreed that he had compromised on several issues, including the need for paramilitaries to decommission their weapons before all party talks.

"It is perfectly true that I could stay in a trench and set up loo good reasons for doing nothing. And I believe were I to do that, my successors would still be standing here in 50 years time in the same trench. It is for that reason that we have compromised in the past on some issues and I think it is right to compromise . . . I am inviting others to take quite hard decisions as well," he said.

In his statement, Mr Major told the House of Commons that there would be no dialogue between British ministers and Sinn Fein until the IRA ceasefire was "unequivocally" restored and the party would not be allowed to participate in all party negotiations if there was a threat of violence.

"Those who advocate violence or do not dissociate themselves clearly from its use . . . cannot expect others to go on sitting at the negotiating table with them. But I warn the House that the road ahead may yet be long and stoney. The men of violence will not give up lightly," he said.

Although the Irish Government now accepted Mr Major's proposals for elections in Northern Ireland, Mr Major said the nature of the electoral system still had to be agreed. The format and the structure of the all party negotiations also needed to be settled.

"The men, women and children of Great Britain and Northern Ireland demand no less of us. It is their lives and their futures that must be our first concern. I commend to the House this approach to negotiations and ultimately to a lasting and comprehensive peace", he said.

The Labour leader, Mr Tony Blair, reaffirmed his party's bipartisan approach to the peace process before stressing that Sinn Fein should not be allowed to "drive" the process.

After welcoming the statement Mr Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, praised the British government for its "courage" in compromising.

Mr Seamus Mallon, the deputy leader of the SDLP described the communique as the "moment of truth" for all the paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland as they now have to choose between peace or isolation. "Will they join in the peace or will they isolate themselves in standing against the express wishes of the Irish people who want that peace so desperately he asked.

However, Mr David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, warned that his party would "find it impossible to meet face to face" with Sinn Fein if it did not renounce violence.

Mr Trimble also warned that there would be a "serious problem" if Mr Major did not accept that the Mitchell proposals for arms decommissioning required legislative action by both the British and Irish governments before June 10th, the fixed date for all party talks.

In reply, Mr Major said all these issues would be on the agenda at the beginning of the all party talks.

While Mr Peter Robinson, the deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, welcomed Mr Major's proposals for elections in Northern Ireland, he stressed that his party would negotiate only with "legitimate" political organisations.

Mr Robinson also insisted that if the IRA restored its ceasefire it could not be on the same basis as before. "We want a permanent ceasefire on this occasion, not a temporary tactical cessation of violence," he said.