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Major Describes Election Plan For Peace in Northern Ireland

By Fred Barbash
The Washington Post
LONDON

Prime Minister John Major announced Thursday a complicated election plan as the next step in the Northern Ireland peace process, saying, with visible frustration, that he was forced to produce his own proposal because rival political parties there could not agree on one.

Major's plan, as outlined to the House of Commons, calls for voters in the British-ruled province to elect a 110-member body, or forum, on May 30; that forum will then select delegates to "all-party" negotiations aimed at achieving a permanent settlement to decades of political and sectarian turmoil in Northern Ireland.

The plan appeared to please only one of the many fractious parties in the troubled province - the Ulster Unionists, who represent the majority of Northern Ireland's Protestants. Catholic-based parties, as well as a smaller Protestant group led by the Rev. Ian Paisley, ridiculed it. Still, none explicitly declined to participate - except Sinn Fein, the political wing of the outlawed Irish Republican Army, which is barred from the process in any case unless the IRA agrees to halt its new campaign of violence.

The election plan - put together by Major from an amalgam of proposals by the Northern Ireland parties - is designed to re-energize peace talks that began nearly a year ago, after Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups declared a halt to 25 years of warfare in the province. Discussions broke down about six months ago over the IRA's refusal to "decommission" its weapons as a condition to Sinn Fein's participation in all-party negotiations.

The IRA ended its cease-fire on Feb. 9 by detonating a car bomb at London's Docklands development that killed two people and injured dozens. A second IRA bomb was found days later in London's theater district and defused; a third later exploded prematurely aboard a London bus, killing the man carrying it and injuring a number of bystanders.

Seeking to end the impasse, Major and Irish Prime Minister John Bruton jointly proposed an election as a prelude to all-party talks that would begin on June 10. Bitter arguments about the form, wisdom and comparative advantages to various parties of such an election erupted immediately, leading to Major's announcement today.

Under his plan, voters in each of the18 parliamentary constituencies located in Northern Ireland will cast ballots for political parties, and the top five vote-getters in each constituency will send delegates to the forum. In addition, 20 more delegates will be allotted to the 10 parties receiving the highest number of votes province-wide. Each party represented will then select from its delegates a negotiating team for the June 10 all-party talks; the forum itself will have no role in those talks.