Blair fights to salvage Ulster peace deal

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The Independent Online
SOME OF the IRA's alleged top killers were named in the Commons yesterday as Tony Blair battled to stop the political consensus underpinning the Good Friday Agreement unravelling over the release of terrorist prisoners.

That process was enduring its toughest test since the Omagh bomb, after Mr Blair was thrown on the defensive by a Tory attack, with the support of some Labour MPs. They criticised the release of prisoners in spite of continued violence, marked by punishment beatings" by gangs in loyalist and republic estates.

The former minister Frank Field joined other Labour MPs in attacking the beatings, which, it was said, were being used to undermine the Royal Ulster Constabulary during the review of its role by Chris Patten, the former Hong Kong governor. The attack by the Tories, whose position is that they support the agreement in principle but not as it is being managed, has stretched to the limit the bi-partisan approach on Northern Ireland.

The Rev Ian Paisley, the Democratic Unionist leader, tried to raise the temperature by naming an alleged Provisional IRA gang said to be responsible for murdering 10 Protestant workers. The Independent has declined to reproduce the names so as not to expose innocent people to the threat of attack.

Mr Paisley's use of Commons privilege to read out names from a police dossier on the Kingsmill massacre from the mid-1970s will do nothing to calm the atmosphere surrounding the peace process. Last week the Conservative backbencher Andrew Hunter backed down from a threat to "name and shame" alleged republican bombers after being advised not to by the Government and the RUC Chief Constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan.

But the DUP leader's show of outrage underlined frustration at the failure to apprehend the terrorists responsible for the Omagh bombing.

The precarious state of the peace process was highlighted by the death of a celebrated IRA member, Eamon Collins, who renounced violence and wrote about his deeds. His body was found on a remote roadside in Newry, Co Down, with severe head injuries.

In their most heated exchanges on the peace process, William Hague was accused by Mr Blair of being "dragged along by some who do not wish the Good Friday Agreement well - I do question the motives of some of them."

But the Prime Minister had to contradict the Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, who earlier suggested that calling a halt to the release of prisoners may not be legal. Mr Blair told MPs he had the power to stop the release of the prisoners but made clear the Government had taken the decision not to do so, at this stage, because it judged that it would destroy the peace process. "We can stop them altogether ... We should do so in circumstances where we then declare the ceasefire no longer exists. If that were to be the case the consequences would be immense for the whole of the process in Northern Ireland. I'm not saying it would never be wrong to come to that judgement. I'm just saying I don't believe that is the right judgement now."

Ministers are privately deeply concerned about the pressure they are facing from MPs and the families of the victims of the violence, but they are being advised by the security and intelligence services that the ceasefire is holding and that bombings, and terrorist attacks on civilian or military targets have been suspended.

Man who defied Provos, page 3