Little known mediators in bid to defuse the violence

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As political leaders in Northern Ireland became further entrenched in their stand-off last night, it emerged that talks were taking place at a local level to try to defuse the threat of another night of violence in the province.

Central to these appeared to be the independent organisation The Mediation Network of Northern Ireland, which, according to sources, had been at Drumcree all day trying to broker a compromise between the parties.

The Mediation Network, a little-known organisation that was set up in the 1980s to reduce conflict in the province, was credited with averting a full-scale riot in Portadown, Co Armagh last year when Orangemen, local residents and the RUC became stuck in an impasse over the proposed marching route.

The organisation is headed by Brendan McCallister, a Catholic father of three, and Joe Campbell, a Presbyterian elder and full-time mediator, and it receives some of its funds from the Belfast Community Relations Council and the Joseph Rowntree Trust.

Also at Drumcree yesterday were Robin Eames, Primate of the Church of Ireland, and the Presbyterian Moderator, Harry Allen, who urged leaders to avoid using any words or taking any actions that could further endanger the already precarious stand-off.

"We've got to try and reach some sort of agreement whereby the rights and privileges of two communities much wider than Drumcree are recognised and are seen to be treated fairly," Dr Eames said.

But many local leaders expressed their pessimism about the immediate prospects for a compromise.

Breandan MacCionnaith, for example, of the Garvaghy Road Residents Association, commented last night: "There's nothing to mediate about. It's between Unionists and the RUC. As far as we're concerned, the Orangemen should pack up their bags and go home now. Mr Trimble himself ruled out compromise [along the lines of last year] because of his behaviour afterwards. That compromise has been ruled out by the community."

The SDLP councillor Ignatius Fox said from Portadown last night that he had given out an invitation for talks yesterday morning, but that the offer had not been taken up. "It seems the situation is remaining the same as [it has been for] the last 12 months," he said.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Donaldson, assistant grandmaster of the Orange Order, was last night equally insistent that there would be no negotiations between the groups.

"It's not our policy to negotiate with any people who have connections with Sinn Fein and the IRA," he said.

Asked if there was any hope of achieving a peace settlement, he commented: "Well, it will come some time. We hope it will come sooner rather than later."

But he insisted that the Orangemen would still be marching down the contested Garvaghy route.