Loyalists call off marches to ease strain

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Ireland Correspondent

Strains in the Irish peace process significantly eased yesterday as loyalists called off two controversial marches and republican sources said the British government had agreed to a high-level meeting.

The two moves will do much to calm fears about the state of the peace process, which in recent days has looked more fragile than at any time since the IRA cessation of violence in August last year.

Sections of the republican grass roots have appeared increasingly disgruntled and frustrated with the apparent lack of progress towards all-party talks, complaining that British emphasis on de-commissioning IRA weapons had created a stalemate.

Tensions were increased by the Royal Ulster Constabulary's handling of last weekend's loyalist march through a nationalist part of the Ormeau Road in south Belfast. Television pictures of RUC officers batoning Catholic protesters represented a major public relations disaster for the force.

The fact that two more loyalist marches were planned in the district, for the next two weekends, had created much apprehension. The atmosphere lightened appreciably, however, when the organisation involved, the Royal Black Preceptory, announced that it was calling off both parades.

Meanwhile, republican sources said they firmly expected another meeting to take place between the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, and Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, close to the anniversary of the IRA ceasefire on 31 August.

They first met during a conference in Washington in May, and met again in Belfast last month. At their last encounter, according to republican sources, Mr Adams outlined in some detail his views on how the deadlock could be broken, with Sir Patrick promising to reflect on what he said.

The republicans say they now expect Sir Patrick to return from his holidays towards the end of the month with a detailed response, describing the meeting as "quite critical". Sinn Fein has recently concentrated on pressing for movement towards all-party talks, calling on the Government to convene these at an early stage.

Republican sources say they are not interested in a protracted round of bi-lateral meetings, but want to proceed directly to inclusive talks. In responding to this, the Government will be mindful of the fact that the two major Unionist parties say they have no intention of sitting down with Sinn Fein.