Blair signals move on Sinn Fein talks

Deepening gloom as marching impasse nears

Tony Blair is to make an important statement on Northern Ireland next week, it emerged yesterday, amid deepening gloom over the prospects for further violence and disorder during the marching season.

Mr Blair is to speak on the prospects of involving Sinn Fein in political talks in the event of a new IRA ceasefire, the outlook for the marching season and the prospects for progress in multi-party talks.

But he will be well aware that in the space of a few weeks the atmosphere of hope generated by his arrival as prime minister has been displaced by one of steadily increasing foreboding.

This was reflected yesterday by Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who said of the impending marches: "I think the majority of people are fearful. I think both communities are quite scared of what could happen. But there's no doom in this camp: we will keep going to the end because I believe that in the end common sense has a chance of working through."

There was little cheer however from Ronnie Flanagan, the RUC chief constable, who cautioned that these were "dangerous times." He said his information was that the IRA was planning further acts of violence in the wake of the killings of two of his constables in Lurgan, Co Armagh.

He described as "distinctly unhelpful" the applications from Orange lodges in various parts of Belfast to stage a series of processions in the days immediately following the key Drumcree march on July 6th. The applications are generally seen as an ominous warning that if the Drumcree march is not allowed through, the RUC will be deliberately placed at full stretch by having to police a plethora of demonstrations.

Co Armagh Orangemen yesterday warned in a letter to Mr Blair: "If the parade is banned, moderate Orange national and local leadership will be discredited and our influence destroyed. Drumcree is a very emotional issue for us - we have no ground left to give."

Meanwhile, a renewed menace from Protestant paramilitary organisations was evident yesterday in a loyalist attempt to kill a Sinn Fein councillor in Ballycastle, Co Antrim. A device found under a car owned by James McCarry contained 1.5lbs of explosives.

The Rev Ian Paisley did little to lower the temperature by claiming that the largely disused Crumlin Road prison in Belfast was being prepared for the mass arrests of loyalists during the marching season.

Meanwhile among nationalists, the sense of puzzlement over what the IRA hoped to achieve by killing the two policemen persisted. The Andersonstown News, a weekly newspaper serving an area of West Belfast where Sinn Fein gains by far the largest vote, headlined its editorial "Bewildered and confused by killings." It said this described the mood of nationalist Belfast after the shootings.

n The RUC said last night that a security operation was under way to investigate reports that a body had been spotted at Mayobridge near Newry, Co Down. The area was cordoned off. A spokesman said police and troops might not move in until this morning because of the possibility of booby traps.

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