Bombers foiled as Sinn Fein given talks hint

Labour offers prospect of new peace initiative
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The Independent Online
Acts of war mingled with rumours of peace in Northern Ireland at the weekend, with both republicans and loyalists active as an apparent initiative from the Labour Party brought a welcome from Sinn Fein.

The most serious casualty of the weekend was an Royal Ulster Constabulary officer seriously injured by an IRA sniper in South Armagh. But two attempted bombings which could have caused multiple casualties failed - first when a republican device was discovered and then when a loyalist car-bomb failed to explode.

Despite this distinctly unpromising background, Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness both spoke of new opportunities for peace.

Although there are no signs that any new IRA ceasefire is in the immediate offing, republicans are showing themselves keenly interested in weekend remarks by Mo Mowlam, Labour's Northern Ireland spokeswoman.

In a BBC interview on Saturday, Ms Mowlam signalled that in the event of an immediate IRA ceasefire, Sinn Fein could enter multi-party talks in Belfast by the summer.

She said: "If they show by word and deed that they are committed to the democratic process then we think they ought to safely move into the talks process. If they did it now and those words and deeds were seen throughout April and May, I think it would be a high possibility."

She stressed, however, that a ceasefire should be called immediately, adding: "If this drags on and they call a ceasefire on 10 May, then say it was in line with what I have said, that is clearly not the case. It has to be done now."

Ms Mowlam's words technically do not meet Sinn Fein's demand for automatic entry into talks in the event of an IRA ceasefire, since they want this to be guaranteed while she spoke only of a "high possibility". None the less, they have been taken as representing a possible overture to republicans which is all the more unexpected for coming in the course of the election campaign.

Gerry Adams, addressing a Sinn Fein Easter rally in Belfast, spoke of a "new opportunity for peace" and said the general election had created a chance to reconstruct the peace process. Another senior republican, Pat Doherty, added: "Let the Labour Party now authorise some of their officials to talk with our people."

The Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginnis said he believed the IRA might call a ceasefire, adding: "I've said I think it will possibly be the Sunday before the election. It could well be that they will go for it this week, but then again perhaps not at all. But what is clear is that if it is called, it will be bogus and tactical and Mo Mowlam seems to have fallen for it already."

John Taylor, deputy leader of the UUP, took a sterner line, warning that if Dr Mowlam, as the next Northern Ireland Secretary, called Sinn Fein into talks "they won't be multi-party talks because the Ulster Unionists will not be there; if she wants proper representation at the talks she can take that as a warning".

The soldier shot at the weekend was hit in the upper leg by a single bullet as he left Forkhill RUC station.

He is believed to be the latest victim of a lethal IRA sniper who has claimed a string of security force victims in recent years. The most recent was a soldier, Stephen Restorick, who was killed in a similar attack in a neighbouring town in mid-February.

A major incident was averted when a 1,000lb IRA bomb was found abandoned on the roadside near an army base at Ballykinler, Co Down. The bombers were apparently disturbed while readying the device for an attack on security force vehicles which use the road. It had been left on a bend where traffic is forced to slow down.

RUC Inspector Kazic Rudewicz said: "A lot of us would have been celebrating this Easter time with great hope. As you can see, the terrorists are giving us no hope whatsoever, only death and destruction."

Yesterday, army experts dealt with a loyalist car bomb which had been left outside a Sinn Fein office in the New Lodge area of north Belfast.

The car, which contained almost 90lb of explosives, had been hijacked in the nearby loyalist Shankill area.