Ahern in mission to bolster peace deal

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ATTEMPTS TO make progress on the arms decommissioning issue moved up a gear yesterday with the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, travelling to Belfast for talks with the major political players.

The Irish government is anxious both to tackle the de-commissioning question and to inject a fresh sense of momentum into the peace process as a whole. Although work is going on at many levels, the key steps of how and when a new executive and new north-south links will be established remain in doubt.

Mr Ahern's meetings with a range of parties took place against a tense background following the loyalist killing of a Catholic man, Brian Service, who was shot in north Belfast at the weekend. He was a random victim of a recently emerged group styling itself the Red Hand Defenders.

There has been speculation that the group is a breakaway faction from an organisation such as the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), which has declared itself to be on ceasefire.

Billy Hutchinson, of the Progressive Unionist Party, said he feared for the safety of people in north Belfast, adding: "If they are a splinter group from the LVF then we can expect more killings and I would advise all people in north Belfast to be on their guard."

Mr Ahern made it clear yesterday he did not expect early breakthroughs to emerge from his visit. "We have an agreement to implement, and the one thing I am not going to tolerate is that we all sit about wondering what we might be able to do. We really have to move things and today everybody has to say, 'Let us keep moving, vacuums are dangerous'."

In other meetings, Northern Ireland's First Minister, David Trimble, met representatives of the Democratic Unionist Party and the UK Unionists. The DUP deputy leader, Peter Robinson, said he believed preparations were being made for a visit by Tony Blair in the near future in an attempt to break the deadlock.

In a Dublin newspaper article, Mr Trimble said he believed they were on the verge of an historic breakthrough but accused Sinn Fein of being "bent on a wrecking strategy". He said recent republican rhetoric suggested they were pursuing not a peace strategy but a "threat-of-return-to-war" strategy. His deputy, Seamus Mallon of the SDLP, said: "We must move this forward, we must do it quickly and in a way that assures the entire community that those who carried out that awful murder are not the people who are going to write the agenda for all of us in the north of Ireland."