Killings a threat to peace - Mayhew

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The peace process was being threatened by the wave of killings of alleged drugs dealers by terrorists, Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, warned yesterday.

A small-time criminal shot dead outside his girlfriend's home was the seventh victim of Direct Action Against Drugs, a shadowy group dedicated to purging drugs from republican areas, which Unionists and police believe is a cover for the IRA. The killing of Ian Lyons, 31, who was blasted with a shotgun in Lurgan, Co Armagh, also alarmed democratic nationalist party leaders, who are likely to raise the issue in the Commons next Tuesday when MPs debate the renewal of the anti-terrorist laws.

"I believe there are those within the IRA and other paramilitary organisations who are trying to break [the] peace. The way in which they are doing it is this awful use of violence - public executions - to impose their will on society. They must not be allowed to do that," said Seamus Mallon, the deputy leader of the SDLP.

Cardinal Cahal Daly, leader of Ireland's Catholics, said the peace process was being threatened. Sir Patrick said the killings were not compatible with Sinn Fein's commitment to democratic methods. "It casts very great doubt on whether Sinn Fein, who are inextricably linked to the IRA, are themselves committed to peaceful methods."

The killings are likely to be raised with the international disarmament commission headed by US Senator George Mitchell, which is due to report by mid-January on the prospects for persuading the IRA to abandon some of its weapons.

Ken Maginnis, the Ulster Unionists' security spokesman, said the IRA may attempt to shoot a loyalist paramilitary involved in drug dealing to try to provoke a revenge attack. The spread of attacks from Belfast, where six men have been killed, to Mid-Ulster was significant, he said. "They are conditioning the public for an expansion in their activities."

David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, said: "I think those elements who have been assuring us over the past 16 months that there is now a permanent ceasefire had better do something to restore their own reputations."

But Mr Mallon also said the killings underlined the need for reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary to regain the confidence of the nationalist community in the police. Some Republican areas display signs saying "no entry" to the RUC.

"I think there is a need for fundamental changes. The RUC has never been able to command the support of the entire nationalist community in the way one would want in a normal society," said Mr Mallon, the MP for Newry and South Armagh.

Sinn Fein's chairman, Mitchel McLaughlin, insisted there was no evidence to link the killings with the IRA and sought to blame the RUC, claiming there was an absence of acceptable policing of the drugs trade.

Mr Lyons, a father of one, was with his girlfriend, Sheena McAlinden, 19, when he was shot as they got into a car outside her home last night. A gunman opened fire with a double-barrelled shotgun and the victim died in hospital.

Police chiefs believe double-barrel shotguns are being used to make it difficult for ballistic expects to trace the weapons. Det Supt Kevin Sheehy, head of the RUC drugs squad, said: "Every police officer and every citizen in Northern Ireland knows that Direct Action Against Drugs is an organisation which does not exist independently of the IRA."