LONDON -- The British government had a duty to respond to overtures from the IRA, the Northern Ireland secretary told the House of Commons yesterday in vigorously defending secret contacts with Irish Republican Army guerrillas.
Sir Patrick Mayhew vowed to continue to seek peace in Northern Ireland after 25 years of violence against British rule.
"I promise the House and the people of Northern Ireland for our part we will not cease our effort to bring violence to a permanent end," he said. "Peace properly attained is a prize worth risks."
Mr. Mayhew said the contacts began in February when the IRA leadership said the "conflict is over but we need your advice on how to bring it to a close."
With Prime Minister John Major seated just behind on the Conservative Party front bench, Mr. Mayhew read from a notebook full of documents detailing exchanges between the Conservative government and Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing.
But Mr. Mayhew did not address accusations that the government had lied by making repeated and unequivocal denials that the exchanges had taken place.
The Rev. Ian R. K. Paisley, the choleric leader of the vigorously anti-Republican Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, was ejected from the Commons chamber when he refused to recant his accusation that Mr. Mayhew had told "falsehoods" about the contacts.
House of Commons rules forbid members from accusing one another of lying. He was banned for five days.
"I stand by what I said," Dr. Paisley roared. "It was a falsehood and what's worse it was a lie."
But the government escaped relatively unscathed by the uproar that began over the weekend with newspaper and broadcast disclosures of a murky "chain of communications" with Sinn Fein. Mr. Major said only recently that exchanges with "terrorists" would turn his stomach.
But Mr. Mayhew and the Major government found surprisingly little opposition from the legislature. Tory party members closed ranks and both the Labor Party and the Liberal Democrats praised the courage of the government and urged a continuation of efforts for peace.
Even James Molyneaux, leader of the Official Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, did not criticize the government.
Mr. Molyneaux's support is extremely important for the government, both in Northern Ireland and in Parliament, where the nine votes he commands are an important element in the 17-vote Conservative majority.
Mr. Mayhew argued that the private communications with Sinn Fein and the IRA did not depart from the government's public statements.
He said the government insisted that any group that wanted to negotiate must "genuinely end violence, not just temporarily, but for good."
The government has insisted on a kind of "quarantine" period during which any cease-fire would be tested. Government ministers late yesterday reportedly said two months without violence might be sufficient proof.
The British government, he said, has accepted that the talks could end in a united Ireland "but only with the consent of the people of Northern Ireland."
Mr. Mayhew read one document that indicated the British government had been willing to enter into "exploratory dialogue" with Sinn Fein as early as January, providing there was evidence of a continuing cease-fire.
"It is for the IRA and their supporters to explain why they have failed to deliver the promised end of violence," Mr. Mayhew said. "They should do so at once."
The government and Sinn Fein in Belfast yesterday each released about 30 pages of texts documenting the exchanges.
Many were similar but Martin McGuinnis, a Sinn Fein leader, said the late February message attributed to him is a "counterfeit." He claimed other government documents were "bogus."
Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein's president, said confidential contacts have been going on for several years but that the latest phase was began by the British government, not the IRA as Mr. Mayhew said.
Mr. Adams said that in May the IRA leadership had offered a two-week cease-fire, but the government failed to respond. He blamed the failure on Mr. Major's reliance on Ulster Unionist votes in the House of Commons at the time of the Maastricht debate.