Hume raises Irish peace hopes

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Hopes for a negotiated deal to make progress on the Northern Ireland peace process rose last night after 90 minutes of talks between the Prime Minister and John Hume, the leader of the nationalist SDLP.

Mr Hume made it clear that he had not dropped his opposition to the Prime Minister's plan for all-party elections in Northern Ireland to overcome the IRA's refusal to begin disarming. But he said the two were now "engaged in a process" of negotiations, to find a way round the deadlock.

The SDLP leader said more talks with John Major were planned soon. "Our views have been stated very clearly but we are not going to repeat them because everyone know what they are. We are engaged in a process with the Prime Minister which we hope will lead to a common approach to a comprehensive peace settlement."

Two days ago, Mr Hume said the SDLP "will have nothing to with elections, full stop". In Belfast, the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, told the Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, that his party remained implacably opposed to elections. He declared: "There will be no return to Stormont. We are not going back to be treated the way we were treated since this state was established."

Sir Patrick said after the meeting that the Government envisaged an elected body which would select representatives for a negotiating body. He insisted the Government would not retract its election plan.

While the hectic round of meetings continued, a prominent republican activist was shot dead in west Belfast, in what looked ominously like the start of a feud within the small but ferocious Irish National Liberation Army.

The man who died was Gino Gallagher, a republican militant believed to have been chief of staff of the INLA. The indications are that he was killed in a power struggle in an organisation particularly prone to violent internal disagreements.

Gallagher was killed inside a social security office on the Falls Road. He was sitting in a booth talking to a female member of staff when a man seated with other members of the public came forward and shot him several times at point blank range. One bullet went through a glass partition and narrowly missed the woman speaking to Gallagher.

Eye-witnesses said the gunman then coolly walked out of the dole office. He was said to have worn a woollen hat, a wig with a pony tail, glasses and a moustache.

Gallagher, who was in his 30s, was a long-time INLA member who had been jailed several times and was a spokesman for the organisation's military wing. In that capacity he was last year photographed shaking hands with a Northern Ireland Office minister, Michael Ancram. He was at the head of an INLA faction opposed to the peace process. He took over as chief of staff several months ago.

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