Loyalist ceasefire is over, RUC chief says

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The Government and the police found themselves in embarrassingly open dispute in Northern Ireland yesterday as the RUC flatly contradicted ministerial insistence that the loyalist ceasefire was holding.

The Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, continued to maintain that the ceasefire remained in place, despite two attempts to blow up republicans with under-car boobytrap bombs in December.

His stance was already uncomfortable in the face of admissions from security and loyalist sources that the Ulster Defence Association was behind the attacks. Yesterday, however, it was seriously undermined when the RUC's Chief Constable, Ronnie Flanagan, said publicly that he believed loyalists were responsible.

The issue dominated the first day of the resumed political talks at Stormont, where the various Northern Ireland parties, without Sinn Fein, gathered again.

It has great significance in that the political representatives of the loyalist paramilitary groups are at the talks on the basis of a formal commitment to purely democratic means. If the loyalist ceasefire is seen to be over, then they face expulsion.

The issue has led to some unusual political alignments. The Government is anxious to keep the loyalists at the table, and in this has the support of the nationalist SDLP and David Trimble's Ulster Unionists.

But republicans are making much of the charge that the establishment is applying double standards to the loyalists and the IRA, and that Sir Patrick's present Nelsonian blind eye was never turned towards Sinn Fein. Mitchel McLaughlin of Sinn Fein said: "Mr Mayhew's remarks completely ignore the assertion of his own Chief Constable that the loyalist ceasefire is over, and show his determination to operate a policy of unilateral exclusion against Sinn Fein."

The Rev Ian Paisley, unusually, was to be found on the same side of the argument. He said all parties at the talks had made a binding obligation not to deviate from principles of non-violence but that ministers were doing nothing about it.

"It seems to me they are not prepared to face up to this issue," he added.

The most pointed intervention came from a Paisley ally, the UK Unionist party leader, Robert McCartney. He asked, with withering sarcasm: "Do you think it was the tooth fairy that's planted the bombs? Do you think it is a band of tooth fairies that are breaking legs and crucifying people throughout Northern Ireland?"

The talks themselves remain bogged down on the arms de-commissioning issue, with no agreement in existence on how the issue should be dealt with.

The Chief Constable, in a BBC interview, said he saw no prospect of a new ceasefire at the moment, adding that he was convinced that the IRA was determined to kill members of the security forces. He warned that each IRA attack increased the prospect of a full resumption of loyalist violence.

While Mr Flanagan said the loyalists had planted the boobytraps, while Sir Patrick said he believed the loyalist ceasefire was still in place. He added: "I am very glad that the Combined Loyalist Military Command, so-called, has not moved back from the ceasefire which it announced 27 months ago. That distinguishes it from the IRA command which ended its ceasefire quite unjustifiably in February of last year."