The British government won praise and encouragement in the House of Commons on Monday as it defended its secret contacts with the Irish Republican Army. Both sides left the door open for more exchanges.
Protestant lawmakers from Northern Ireland criticized the government; most others across the political spectrum supported the peace initiatives.
“We shall keep exploring again and again the opportunities for peace,” said Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Cabinet official responsible for Northern Ireland.
Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the party that supports the IRA’s campaign to end British rule in the province, said he expected contacts to continue, although he accused the British government of lying and of inventing excuses for not negotiating.
“Sinn Fein is committed, and I personally . . . am committed, to trying to bring about peace,” Adams said in an interview with Independent Television News.
Mayhew and Prime Minister John Major were embarrassed over the weekend when the Observer newspaper published a document exposing the secret contacts. Some Protestant lawmakers from Northern Ireland called for the resignation of Mayhew and even Major, who had strongly denied that any talks were taking place.
Fears have been rising among Protestants in Northern Ireland that a British deal with the IRA could eventually end the province’s union with Britain and make them a minority in a reunited Ireland dominated by Roman Catholics.
“I think there is no question of resigning by reason of any efforts that I or the prime minister have made to secure, by proper means, peace in Northern Ireland,” Mayhew said, drawing cheers from Conservative Party colleagues.
He released copies of the government’s communications with the IRA and its allies. Although these did not resolve all the differences between Mayhew’s and Adams’ interpretation of events, they did show Britain had insisted throughout that the IRA had to call off violence before any negotiations.
But contrary to its public demands for a permanent cease-fire, the government apparently was willing in May to accept a two-week halt in the IRA campaign as the price for talking.
Martin McGuinness, the deputy leader of Sinn Fein, accused the British of inventing a message supposedly passed to the British in February, saying the IRA had concluded “the conflict is over.”
Kevin McNamara, Northern Ireland spokesman for the opposition Labor Party, said he hoped the government’s “recent mishandling of these matters” would not deter ministers “from believing that risk-taking is essential if progress is to be achieved.”
David Alton of the small Liberal Democratic Party hailed the government for its courage.
Criticism of Mayhew came mainly from Protestant lawmakers from Northern Ireland. The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party, was ejected from the Commons after calling Mayhew a liar, violating a rule against such accusations.