Clinton begs for Ulster compromise

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President Bill Clinton last night made an eleventh-hour appeal to loyalists and nationalists to avert a disastrous confrontation in Drumcree at the weekend, as Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, grappled with the decision over whether to let the Orangemen's march go ahead.

With that decision hanging on a knife edge, the Ulster Secretary last night flew to Belfast for last-minute talks with Lt-General Rupert Smith, the general officer commanding British troops in the province, and Ronnie Flanagan, the Chief Constable of the RUC, about the risks of a confrontation on Sunday, if the march is allowed to go ahead.

A decision could be announced today but Ms Mowlam is expected to allow the residents of the Garvaghy Road in Portadown and the Orangemen more time to consider the appeal by President Clinton for restraint, and for a compromise to be reached.

"There have been very strong rumours that she will force it through, but no decision has been taken either way. She has made it clear it is for the RUC Chief Constable to advise. If he decides it should be banned, she has the power to do so, but if he decides it should go ahead, she will support him," said one government source.

Ms Mowlam earlier attended the first talks at Downing Street between Bertie Ahern, the new Irish Taoiseach, and Tony Blair, who also recognised that last hopes of securing a ceasefire from the IRA could rest on the outcome of the Drumcree impasse. Mr Ahern and Ray Burke, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, upset unionists in Belfast earlier this week when they called for the march to be banned. "They are worried about the security breaking down, and civil war breaking out, but we have had civil war for a generation," said one Ulster Unionist MP.

Downing Street sources said the meeting was positive, and Mr Ahern praised the "tireless" efforts of Ms Mowlam to reach a compromise in Drumcree, but there were clear signs of tension between Dublin and London over the decision. "They stated their position and we wanted them to understand the difficulty we have," said a Whitehall source.

Mr Ahern said that it would be a "retrograde step" to use troops to force the march along Garvaghy Road past Drumcree church through the predominantly Catholic area of Portadown, where tension was rising on the front line.

"We have to try to de- escalate the tension, understanding the protests of one side and the traditions of another," said Mr Ahern.

Calling for "generosity" to be shown on both sides, the Irish Prime Minister cautioned against allowing the Drumcree confrontation to destroy the peace process, in which he is supporting Mr Blair in insisting that the IRA must declare a ceasefire before they can join the talks, which are due to resume in September.

The Government broke off contacts with Sinn Fein after the killing of two policemen by the IRA, but officials have confirmed that Sinn Fein has sent the Government a note asking for clarification of the joint Anglo- Irish statement, and the Government is in touch with Sinn Fein through some form of contacts with officials. "We are aware of their general attitude," said the source.

Nerves taut, page 9