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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Irish Ministers Deliver Vote for Major

LONDON -- British Prime Minister John Major breathed easier Tuesday after narrowly surviving a crucial vote in parliament, but a bitter row flared over whether Northern Irish parties tried to hold him to ransom in return for their support.


The knife-edge victory -- by just 320 votes to 319 in the 651-seat House of Commons -- after Monday's debate on British arms sales to Iraq before the 1991 Gulf War meant Major was saved the ignominy of having to call a vote of confidence.


But questions were immediately raised over whether Northern Ireland parties, whose support was vital to the result, tried to wring some political advantage from Major ahead of the vote.


Ministers accused the Ulster Unionist Party, or UUP, which supports continued British rule in Northern Ireland and holds nine seats in parliament, of seeking to extract concessions on peace plans for the province.


The parliamentary arithmetic was tight because last week's defection by Peter Thurnham, the third member of parliament to quit the Conservatives in four months, cut Major's majority to just two.


Two Conservative MPs did vote with the opposition and all nine Ulster Unionists voted against the government. Major won thanks to the abstention of three MPs from another Northern Ireland party, the Democratic Unionists, or DUP.


UUP leader David Trimble angrily denied the allegations of arm-twisting. "We don't expect ministers, because they're disappointed at the way we vote on a particular issue, to be rushing out afterwards with highly prejudicial comments of dubious accuracy," he said.


Major has repeatedly said he would not seek to gain political advantage from his three-year efforts to find a path to permanent peace in Northern Ireland.


The peace process has been badly, perhaps fatally wounded, by three IRA bombs in London this month which ended a 17-month cease-fire and killed three people.


?In Belfast, Sinn Fein, political wing of the IRA, said Monday that Britain had rejected its demand for a firm date for all-party Northern Ireland peace talks.


Senior negotiator Martin McGuinness, speaking to reporters after the first contact between the two sides since the IRA cease-fire collapsed three weeks ago, said: "I have to say that I am very disappointed by the response from the British government representative."