The Conservative government has come under attack in the Commons over the revelations it has had secret contacts with the IRA.
Northern Ireland Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew insisted there had been no change in the government’s official position – there could be no negotiations with the republican movement until a ceasefire had been agreed.
But his claims were brushed aside by the Democratic Unionists, led by the Reverend Ian Paisley, who called on the Northern Ireland Secretary to quit.
Channels ‘still open’
Downing Street has said channels to the IRA are still open and talks could begin once a ceasefire was in place, possibly about 10 weeks after it started.
Sir Patrick insisted nothing said in private had undermined the public promises.
“Nobody has been authorised and nobody will be authorised to enter into discussions with people who are responsible for violence or who justify the use of violence,” he said.
His opposite number on the Labour benches Kevin McNamara said the pursuit of peace was more important than anything else.
In dramatic scenes at the House of Commons today, Mr Paisley first accused Sir Patrick of telling falsehoods.
When he was asked to apologise, he went even further and accused the Northern Ireland secretary of lying.
He has been expelled from the Commons for five days.
The government has produced what it says is a complete set of documents recording the contacts with the IRA which began in February.
Sinn Fein has said at least one of the documents was false – and it has denied initiating the dialogue.
The documents appear to show the two sides discussing how talks could begin – but they were interrupted first by the Warrington bomb in March and in April by the Docklands bomb.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said: “What I am concerned about is that Patrick Mayhew and John Major have been abusing these contacts and we have to place our position on the record.”
Chris McGimpsey from the Ulster Unionist party executive has been studying the documents.
He said: “Some of these meetings were three-hour discussions over a table between the provisional IRA and the government. We will be trying to find out exactly what happened and then we’ll decide.
“But unless the Northern Ireland Office can indicate to us we have nothing to fear, then they can expect a pretty rough ride from the Ulster Unionist party.”
On 15 December 1993, Prime Minister John Major and his Irish counterpart, Albert Reynolds, signed the Downing Street Declaration.
It stated that Britain had no “selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”.
It went on to say the British Government would encourage agreement on a political settlement in Ireland, based on the wishes of the people.
An IRA ceasefire was declared in August 1994, but it did not last.
A new ceasefire was finally announced in July 1997.
The Good Friday agreement was signed in April 1998.
It included plans for a new Northern Ireland assembly with some devolved powers from London.
The Assembly has so far had a turbulent history.
It has been suspended several times, the last in October 2002 over allegations of IRA spying within the Northern Ireland Office.
Photo: Sir Patrick Mayhew: “No change in the government’s position”