Blair returns to Ulster turmoil as IRA expels another teenager

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TONY BLAIR came under intense pressure last night to take personal control of the Northern Ireland peace process as the IRA expelled another teenager from the province.

In their most vitriolic attack to date on Mo Mowlam, Ulster Unionists called on the Prime Minister to sack the Northern Ireland Secretary or risk the final collapse of the Good Friday Agreement.

The Ulster Unionist Party claimed that Ms Mowlam's declaration last week, despite numerous violations, that the IRA ceasefire was intact had effectively given the terrorists a "licence to kill" or beat anyone.

Since her declaration, seven young men and teenagers have been "exiled" by the IRA. The latest victim was a north Belfast man aged 19 who was beaten with an iron bar by republican paramilitaries before being ordered to leave.

Two of those exiled, Gerard Groogan, 18, and his brother Martin, 16, from Dungannon, are now in London. Their father is due to undergo an operation for liver cancer today. Efforts are being made to find a home in England for a 15-year-old "tearaway" who was told to leave by 7pm last night.

With David Trimble, the UUP leader, facing a key meeting today of colleagues opposed to the agreement, Mr Blair will be expected to act quickly to defuse the controversy.

The party's call for an urgent meeting with Mr Blair follows an extraordinary onslaught on Ms Mowlam's character and tactics by Ken Maginnis, its security spokesman.

Mr Maginnis, MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, said that the peace process was in danger of going "down the drain" unless Ms Mowlam was removed from the post. She has failed to understand IRA tactics or the military intelligence given to her by the security services, he claimed. Mr Blair would have to replace her with someone more "competent" or deal with Unionists himself if the Good Friday Agreement was to be rescued.

"In recent times, I have not experienced the Secretary of State making considered judgements," Mr Maginnis told BBC Radio 4's The World At One. "She treats the whole process as though it was a series of disjointed events. We have a Secretary of State who puts a telescope to a blind eye and doesn't understand what's happening in terms of the process.

"She doesn't understand guerrilla warfare, she certainly doesn't understand what she's been told by her intelligence sources and she has got a soft spot for people who live close to the edge."

Downing Street moved to defend Ms Mowlam last night as its spokesman dismissed claims that Mr Blair had left her to "twist in the wind". She had been given the Prime Minister's full backing for her judgement that the IRA's ceasefire still held, he said. "It would have been impossible for her to have reached her decision without consulting him." Mr Blair, will review the Ulster situation when he resumes work today.

A spokesman for the Northern Ireland Office said that Mr Maginnis's comments were not new and that Ms Mowlam was aware of his remarks.

Mr Trimble faces a key meeting today when anti-agreement party members are expected to demand a legal challenge to Ms Mowlam's ruling.

Despite his comments yesterday, Mr Maginnis is expected to back Mr Trimble's determination to proceed with next month's review of the peace process by former US senator George Mitchell.

The Government faced further anxiety yesterday when it emerged that John Hume, 62, the SDLP leader and one of the main architects of the peace process, had undergone an emergency operation in Austria on a ruptured intestine.

Meanwhile, the Loyalist Volunteer Force vowed to hand over more guns to General John de Chastelain's decommissioning body "in the near future." The authorities will greet the LVF statement with scepticism, however, given its record of unpredictability.

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