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Tuesday, 19 May, 1998, 23:03 GMT 00:03 UK
Robin Oakley's Westminster Week
The Northern Ireland referendum on Friday, results due on Saturday, will occupy most political attention this week with the government clearly nervous about the outcome.

Monday sees Robin Cook facing his latest quizzing over the Arms for Africa affair with a Commons debate on Sandline and Sierra Leone.

Hoping to do rather better than his Permanent Secretary did last week, Mr Cook will have to deploy the government's now familiar case that Foreign Office officials did not authorise any gun-running by Sandline - but if by any chance it turns out that they did, why worry because the good guys won.

And if you don't like that one either, well, the arms arrived too late to make any difference anyway.

On Thursday we expect to see final resolution of the union recognition question when ministers publish the Fairness at Work White Paper.

And on Tuesday William Hague goes to his old business school near Paris to deliver a keynote speech on his attitude to Europe.

The Northern Ireland vote

It is an indication of Tony Blair's worries over the Northern Ireland referendum that Downing Street sought to keep the focus on the Irish question throughout the G8 summit, rather than playing up his hob-nobbing with other world leaders on global questions.

Ministers are confident of a victory in the referendum but they know that 50% plus one is not enough. To make the agreement workable they need something better than 65%, indicating that they have achieved a majority among unionists too.

They are well aware that the triumphalism of the Balcombe Street gang at the Sinn Fein conference and the welcoming of Michael Stone at the UDF rally has been hardening unionist Don't Knows into No voters and they fear that without a majority Yes vote among unionists the agreement could founder.

Lack of a unionist majority for Yes would undermine Daid Trimble's position as UUP leader and strengthen Ian Paisley. It would set off internecine warfare among unionists and would see the No voters in its ranks pressing for those of their view to be chosen as candidates for the Assembly elections on June 25.

The Good Friday agreement, which has clearly won strong backing among Catholics and nationalists and among the smaller centrist groups, would thus have the effect of institutionalising Northern Ireland's problems instead of solving them.

Ministers are worried that unionists in favour of a Yes vote have not been sufficiently organised and that they have been dealt a heavy blow by the prison releases which they insist are nothing to do with the peace process but would have happened anyway under parole arrangements.

It has taken the focus off the Big Picture "Future versus the Past" argument and put it on the emotional issues of prisoner release, arms decommissioning and reform of the RUC.

Opinion poll evidence is that the Prime Minister himself is trusted and that the reassurance campaign he has mounted with a blitz of media appearances is having an effect. He will go to Belfast again before the referendum vote.

Mr Blair has been steadily hardening up his pledges to enshrine in legislation the guarantees the unionist doubters are seeking: that the agreement really will mean an end to violence, that Gerry Adams will not figure on the Northern Ireland executive, and prisoner releases will not be accelerated without firm proof that guns are being handed over.

The tests will be that organisations linked to paramilitaries will have to give clear and unequivocal assurances that they have ended violence for good.

The ceasefires will have to be absolute - no bombing, no killing, no punishment beatings, an end to targeting and to weapons procurement.

There will have to be full co-operation with the disarmament commission. And there will have to be no use of other, smaller paramilitary groups as proxies to continue the violence.

There will not, however, be any reopening of the Good Friday Agreement and it is difficult to see how precisely these aims can be spelled out in the follow-up legislation at Westminster.

Mr Blair has promised that the legislation will make the test as to whether people have given up violence "verifiable" but he has not yet spelled out how.

The Government's worry is that a Northern Ireland assembly dominated by no-voting unionists could be unworkable. And things could then get worse with the marching season to come.

Union recognition

The Prime Minister's promise that this would be a government of hard choices has taken a bit of a knock over the tardiness in producing the Fairness at Work White Paper, delayed for months while the government agitated whether to side with the CBI or the TUC over union recognition.

Labour's manifesto promised legislation to ensure that unions would be recognised as negotiators on behalf of workers "where a majority of the workforce vote in a ballot for the union to represent them".

The TUC has argued that that means 50% of those who vote, the CBI that it means 50% of those who work in the firm.

At one extreme that could mean 70% of the workforce turning out and 70% of that turnout voting for recognition yet failing to secure it. At the other extreme it could mean 10% of the workforce turning out and voting 51-49% in favour of recognition and securing it.

The government's favoured compromise is expected to be a minimum turnout threshold of 40% and an exemption for small firms employing fewer than 20 people.

But the embarrassment is that the government is pressing ahead with the elected mayor for London after a 34% turnout in the referendum.

Fewer than a quarter of Londoners have voted positively for an elected mayor and few councillors are elected on a turnout of more than 40%.

There is internal division among Labour MPs on the union recognition question and at one stage that appeared to extend into the Cabinet.

But a draft version of the White Paper outlined to last week's Cabinet by Margaret Beckett seems to have won approval. The Cabinet will see the full thing this Thursday and it is expected to be published later the same day.

Labour's relations with the unions are souring. They were disappointed by the Cabinet's approach to public sector pay in the first pay round under the Labour government.

They suspect the government of "cosying up to business leaders" and they are pushing for a higher minimum wage than seems likely to emerge from the deliberations of the Low Pay Commission.

Rumours put that at around 3.60 an hour or 137 for a 38-hour week, with the TUC pressing for 4 and some unions for more.

There are also rumblings with Unison over the government's Private Finance Initiative plans for pumping more private money into hospital-building, forcing health workers out of the NHS in some cases.

It has been something of a warning signal for the government to see the train drivers union ASLEF dump the Old Left general secretary Lew Adams in favour of the harder Left Dave Rix, a candidate from Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party.

The other rail union, the RMT is also growing restive about the government's failure to reverse privatisation and another SLP man, Bob Crow, might run in an election to replace the veteran left winger Jimmy Knapp.

Some Labour traditionalists fear that union disillusion with a Labour government which does not adopt an "our people" approach will lead to a wave of union militancy in the run-up to the next election.

Hague in Europe

Euro-scepticism has been one of the distinguishing marks of the new Conservative leader, who has shown himself more open-minded on a range of other policies and disinclined to take his party too far to the Right.

Mr Hague has taken a strong line on the Single European Currency, effectively ruling out British participation for ten years by saying that it requires judgment over a full economic cycle and opposing it for the lifetime of the next Parliament.

Politically this represents a gamble that the Euro fails to prove a success, that sections of British industry continue to oppose the idea and that he can swing some of the tabloids back behind the Tories at the next election.

But there is little doubt that he has the majority of the Tory activists and MPs with him and Mr Hague takes the view that John Major's experiences demonstrated the hopelessness of trying to please all the Tory party on the issue of Europe.

On Tuesday he will make a keynote speech at his old French business school INSEAD at Fontainebleu, setting out the constitutional case as well as the economic caase against a single currency.

He will also expound his wider philosophy of Europe, suggesting that the old Monnet/Schumannn model for Europe, appropriate in post war years when it was important to fight nationalism, is no longer appropriate in the post Cold War world.

No longer, he will say, is it necessary to suppress national identity.

He will argue that the crucial task now is enlargement, improving the democracies of central and Eastern Europe and bringing them into membership in the same way that Spain and Portugal were encouraged earlier.

And he will argue for a looser, more informal European Union.


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