While unionists and nationalists about her lose their heads, Mo Mowlam is calmly determined to keep the Irish peace talks on course
In a cordoned-off section of a London airport, a driver and security team are waiting again for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Since Christmas Marjorie Mowlam has spent only two days outside the province and, even for VIPs, travel is an imprecise business. The flight from Northern Ireland takes 45 minutes, taxi-ing round a busy airport takes nearly 30.

When she arrives Ms Mowlam does not show many signs of the strains of a week that has seen the murder of a loyalist paramilitary boss in the Maze prison, reprisals claiming the lives of two Catholics, and calls from the Ulster Unionists for her resignation.

She did not consider quitting over the incident which sparked the current crisis, the killing of Billy Wright, the leader of the Loyalist Volunteer Force in the Maze prison. Surely a similar event on the mainland would provoke an outcry? "If I thought," answered Ms Mowlam, "that there were specific things we had done as a government to the Maze which were part of the present problems that would be a different story. However, I don't.

"I don't think my resignation would change anything in the Maze, and it would be playing to the splinter paramilitary groups' agenda to destabilise the talks. They have no ceasefire, they're not committed to the talks. They want to destroy them."

Ms Mowlam rejected unionist demands for a full independent inquiry into the events at the Maze. But she has agreed to publish the results of her existing inquiries into events there by Martin Narey, director of regimes for prisons, and of a future inspection by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, General Sir David Ramsbottom. She will not, however, go as far as to promise that heads will roll; " I think it's unhelpful to prejudge either what the conclusions of Narey will be or what the actions will be in the absence of those conclusions."

IN THE back of her armour-plated ministerial car as it speeds into London, Ms Mowlam insists the ceasefire remains intact and that, so far, there is no evidence that any of the groups in or connected with the talks have participated. Last week's upsurge of violence is, however, not going to be the last one, because of the actions of those outside.

Ms Mowlam argues: "We must all focus on the talks and do what we can to speed that process up. We do want to fast-forward that, otherwise there will be events like this [last week's murders]. I believe - with co- operation and a determination by the parties - that we can climb over them and the talks will progress. But it would be naive to suggest that there won't be other difficulties."

The splinter groups, she adds, "won't go away" and their objective is to "try to pull one of the parties which have declared a ceasefire and are in the talks off their ceasefire". Some believe this has already happened, and that the LVF murder on New Year's Eve was helped by loyalist groups allied to those involved in the talks. Ms Mowlam, who had just met security officials, promises that any evidence linking the murder to other groups will be made public. She said: "On the information they have at present and with the LVF claiming it, they are assuming LVF. There are suggestions that others assisted to some degree and the RUC investigation is looking into that. If they have broken the Mitchell principles [of non-violence] then I am sure a party will bring it up at the talks process under the rules of the talks." That would almost certainly result in the exclusion of the group from talks - a possibility which would further incense loyalists.

Ms Mowlam accepts that unionists feel that the concessions made so far have gone mainly to the nationalists. "I understand that they feel hard done by. A number of people on the unionist side have expressed that to me. At other times in the past eight months the other side has complained that the unionists are getting special treatment. Nevertheless there is a perception there, it is a serious perception and I have to deal with that. The best way of progressing is for the talks to get added momentum, that is the best confidence-builder anyone can get."

DAVID TRIMBLE'S Ulster Unionists can, however, expect few big carrots in terms of the so-called "confidence-building" measures. Ms Mowlam is backing their idea of creating a memorial to victims of violence. She says she has listened to their protests about the situation in the Maze. She wants to improve contact and communication with the parties: "We have to find a way that, whenever anything is decided or announced or something happens, we have a way of communicating that to all the parties. We ought to be able to improve communication."

But Ms Mowlam is aware that she has to be careful not to provoke counter- claims from the nationalists through further measures to please unionists. In the meantime the security situation will be monitored closely following Friday's decision to resume daylight patrols. Troops moved back to the mainland could return "if necessary" -"but that is not under consideration at present because we have responded more than adequately".

Her final appeal is for the politicians to listen to the people they represent. "They are," she says, "reticent because they don't want to be too hopeful and don't want to be let down, but I can assure you it's peace people want. No one wants to go back to the dark years, and talking is the only way to avoid that."

For Ms Mowlam the weekend brings a modicum of domestic normality: a visit to the cinema (The Full Monty - "quite poignant as well as funny") and a shopping trip to buy carpets. Tomorrow the parties will reconvene briefly in Belfast, and in a week's time the full peace talks are scheduled to resume, albeit with few signs of a breakthrough. The show is still just about on the road.