Blair cracks down on terror

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The Independent Online
TOUGH new measures to make it easier to convict members of terrorist groups will be unveiled by the Prime Minister on a visit to Northern Ireland this week.

The outlining of details of the Government's security crackdown comes in the wake of the Omagh bombing, which was marked yesterday by a remembrance service attended by 50,000 people in the town's centre, and by the announcement of a ceasefire by the Irish National Liberation Army.

Tony Blair will announce the Government's measures when he visits the province on Tuesday. He will also reveal whether Parliament will have to be recalled early to enact legislation needed for the changes, Downing Street has revealed. The Northern Ireland visit will be the Prime Minister's first official duty on his return from his holiday in France and he is expected to use the opportunity to give new impetus to the peace process.

The Government wants to match security measures announced last week by the Irish government and aims to build on the "unprecedented" co-operation shown between London and Dublin in the aftermath of the bomb that killed 28 people last Saturday.

The INLA, the small but intermittently ferocious republican splinter group, yesterday announced the end of a campaign of violence that has claimed more than 100 lives, with a commitment that it had "now shifted from the position of defence and retaliation to the position of complete ceasefire".

"We recognise that armed struggle can never be the only option for revolutionaries," the INLA's statement said. "In the new conditions prevailing, it is only right to respond to the new conditions. Those conditions demand a ceasefire."

The group went on to apologise for the killings of innocent people during its campaign, adding: "There were faults and grievous errors in our prosecution of the war. Innocent people were killed and injured, and at times our actions as a liberation army fell far short of what they should have been."

The announcement was welcomed across the political spectrum. While authorities will watch carefully to be sure that the cessation of violence is intended to be sincere and lasting, they believe the move is a genuine one.

Although the ceasefire has been in the pipeline for some time, it is believed the wave of revulsion caused by the Omagh bombing brought the decision to a head. The sense is also growing that post-Omagh emotions will help ensure the ceasefire sticks.

Downing Street said the "extraordinary reaction" of the people of Northern Ireland to the bloodshed had persuaded the Prime Minister that the Good Friday agreement was the only way forward.

As horrific as the bombing had been, Mr Blair believed that the coming together of all sides of the community proved that "some good can come out of this evil", the Prime Minister's official spokesman said. "It could even be the final, painful event that closes this chapter in Irish history for good."

Many of the measures announced last week by the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, are already covered by UK laws, but moves to make it easier to prove membership of proscribed organisations are at the top of Mr Blair's agenda. Government lawyers are checking whether such measures can be implemented by a Whitehall order or whether they need primary legislation. If they do need legislation, Parliament is likely to be recalled next month.

Mr Blair was "deeply moved" by his visit to the hospital caring for the victims of the Omagh bomb and had taken heart to push the peace agreement forward. He was also impressed by the level of co-operation between the British and Irish governments and their police forces, Downing Street said. The leadership qualities of Ulster's First Minister, David Trimble, and Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams had shown through, as had Mr Ahern's determination to be "absolutely ruthless" in dealing with those committed to violence.

The aftermath of Omagh had proved that the peace accord had produced a new era in Northern Ireland politics. The Real IRA, the republican hardliners responsible for the bombing, had no support at home or abroad. Downing Street said there was no question of releasing any prisoners likely to join the Real IRA or any proscribed group.

Remembering the dead, page 4

Leading article, page 24

David McKittrick, page 25