Loyalists set out terms for peace

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LOYALIST paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland last night issued a joint public statement which raised hopes that they would eventually join the IRA in a ceasefire.

The Combined Loyalist Military Command, representing all the violent Protestant groups, set out a list of their concerns which, they declared, 'if suitably addressed could allow the loyalist groups to make a meaningful contribution towards peace'.

The statement, which was couched in notably non-confrontational language, said the loyalists still needed to establish that the IRA ceasefire was permanent and that the republican INLA were following suit. They also wished to be convinced that no secret deals had been done between the Government and the IRA and that Northern Ireland's position within the UK was assured.

The loyalists also said they wanted to assess the implications of the framework document on which the British and Irish governments are working. Since this may not be issued for more than a month, it appears that any definitive announcement on a ceasefire may yet be some time away.

The past seven days have seen a complete absence of republican violence and only a few attacks by loyalists. Yesterday brought accusations of heavy-handed policing and harassment by the RUC in loyalist areas, but there are no signs of loyalists launching a high-level campaign aimed at breaking the republican ceasefire. With a general easing of tension in working-class Protestant areas, there seems little community pressure to stage a large-scale violent response.

Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence, indicated there were no plans to cut troop levels until the question of whether the IRA ceasefire was permanent was cleared up. Speaking in Berlin, he said the crucial requirement was to ensure people were protected.

But Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein described Mr Rifkind's comments as 'particularly unimaginative and arrogant'. He repeated republican calls for a complete demilitarisation.

In Northern Ireland troops took to the streets at midnight yesterday wearing berets and regimental headgear rather than steel helmets in a visible sign of security relaxation.

(Photograph omitted)