Belfast blitz dampens peace hopes

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The Independent Online
A QUICK Sinn Fein response to the Anglo-Irish peace declaration was demanded by the Government yesterday as the IRA launched a wave of firebomb attacks on stores in the Belfast area, dampening hopes of peace in the province, writes Stephen Castle.

In an attempt to keep up pressure on the IRA, Robert Atkins, a junior Northern Ireland minister, said the Government was 'still awaiting a formal response from Sinn Fein and we have to ensure some sort of response is coming as soon as possible . . . Shilly- shallying about clarification of the Downing Street declaration is just time-wasting.'

The millions of pounds of damage inflicted in the fire- bomb attacks, which began 46 minutes into the New Year, 'suggests the IRA is not interested in peace despite their protestations'.

At the height of yesterday's attacks, 28 fire appliances were in operation. Ten stores were attacked and at least five extensively damaged; a B & Q do-it- yourself store in north Belfast was burned to the ground. The city's 200-year-old Linenhall Library was also hit and the Royal Ulster Constabulary said more than 1,000 books in the biography section were damaged.

Ministers are anxious that political pressure on the IRA should be maintained so as to keep up the momentum behind the Downing Street initiative.

But the Dublin government faces pressure for a change in the 20-year-old broadcasting ban on members of the IRA or Sinn Fein, which has to be renewed or scrapped this month.

The Arts and Culture Minister, Michael Higgins, is thought to be on the point of recommending an end to the ban. But John Bruton, leader of the opposition party Fine Gael, warned that if the ban was removed before the IRA renounced violence, the government's leverage in the peace process would be substantially reduced.

On Friday the outlawed loyalist paramilitary organisation the Ulster Freedom Fighters said that its terrorist campaign would continue despite the Downing Street declaration.

Cardinal Cahal Daly, primate of all-Ireland, told a World Day of Peace Mass in Armagh that it was 'cruel to snatch peace away from people when it seems to be within their grasp. People have a right to peace and no one should deny it to them.'

Sinn Fein vice-president Martin McGuinness has said prospects for the Northern Ireland peace declaration are worthless - unless the British government's position is different to that set out in the document.

In an interview in today's edition of the Dublin-based Sunday Post, he said nothing short of a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland would be acceptable to republicans.