Back to the butchery in Ulster. Can Mo Mowlam save the day?

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The Independent Online
A weekend of violence in Ulster has underlined the gravity of the task facing Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, as the Stormont peace talks move to Lancaster House in London this morning. Our Ireland Correspondent says the gunmen are now operating beyond reason or reach.

People in Belfast now fall silent at television and radio news bulletins, waiting in dread to hear whether and where the gunmen have struck again, wondering how long the slaughter will go on at this appallingly metronomic rate.

Hope remains alive for the peace process, but it takes a fresh pounding as news of each incident comes through. Police say there has been a shooting; later bulletins say a man's been rushed to hospital; his condition is critical; he is dead.

Next come the pathetic details: a newly-created widow, a shattered family, the sorrow of yet another funeral. Sometimes the victims are quiet family men, sometimes outgoing community activists. The man killed on Friday night helped care for his two blind brothers. The awful thought persists that even if the peace process ultimately succeeds these families will never again know peace.

When the talks reconvene in London this morning one of the first items of business will be the question of the expulsion from the process of the Ulster Democratic Party because of its close association with the Ulster Defence Association. The UDA has just admitted that it killed three of the eight Catholics who have died since Christmas, but says its violence is at an end. The other two of the 10 dead had loyalist links.

The latest Catholic victim, killed on Saturday night, was murdered by loyalists who summoned his taxi, forced him to drive to a quiet spot, shot him and left him at the side of the road.

In Catholic areas in particular there is now an atmosphere of subdued terror. Women are asking their husbands to take some time off work, and not to go into potentially dangerous areas. Mothers are begging their sons not to leave the house.

This has gone beyond retaliation for republican violence. These gunmen are operating on sectarian hatred, beyond politics, beyond reason, beyond reach: far from seeking entry into the peace process they hope to wreck it. Raised in the Troubles, violence became for them first a way of life and then the only way of life.

The Catholic community is overwhelmingly in favour of an inclusive peace process but now faces a terrible dilemma. The process goes on, the multi- party talks today moving to Lancaster House in attempt to achieve the lift-off which has so far eluded the politicians. Ejection of the UDP would constitute a powerful affirmation of anti-violence, but it might cause a return to full-scale violence.

The dilemma was summed up at the weekend in a thoughtful intervention from John Major, the former prime minister, who declared: "It's a very fine call. If the UDP are removed, there is a danger it would precipitate the collapse of the talks. It being Northern Ireland, it is equally true that if they are not removed, it could precipitate a collapse in the talks."

Ms Mowlam said of the dilemma yesterday: "It's competing moralities. We have the competing morality of the integrity of the talks, the three murders and the Mitchell Principles on non-violence on one side, versus trying to hold the talks together and making sure more lives are not lost.

"If we want to try to stop this thing from escalating to the bad old days we have to make what progress we can to make sure this is a totally inclusive process. If we keep the talks going it's our only possible route to saving other lives being lost. That's the decision I've got to make, not an easy one."