Loyalists warn of reprisals

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The shadow of a loyalist gunman yesterday fell across the political talks which are due to get under way at Stormont near Belfast today, with ominous signs of strain within the ranks of extreme Protestant groups.

The weekend brought indications that, while loyalist paramilitary leaders do not favour a return to violence, dissent and dissatisfaction may be growing, particularly in the illegal Ulster Volunteer Force.

Northern Ireland at the moment appears poised precariously between peace and war, with no IRA ceasefire in effect but, for the moment at least, no bombs going off. A resurgence of loyalist violence would deal a potentially fatal blow to the continuing delicate efforts to build a peace settlement.

The Stormont talks have themselves already run into difficulties, following the decision of the Ulster Unionist and Democratic Unionist parties not to attend, and with Sinn Fein protesting that it is being excluded. This morning, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, and the Irish foreign minister, Dick Spring, meet to start the ball rolling for discussions which are due to end on 13 March.

The Government has laid down that, because the IRA is not observing a ceasefire, Sinn Fein may only meet officials and not ministers. Other parties will become involved at later stages in the talks, which are to cover what type of election should be held, whether it should be accompanied by a referendum, and on working out arrangements for the main all-party talks which are to begin on 10 June.

Anxiety about extreme loyalist opinion rose when a Belfast newspaper reporter was taken to meet a masked gunman who warned of a new campaign of attacks against republicans. Later, the Rev Roy Magee, a Belfast Presbyterian minister who helped negotiate the loyalist ceasefire, said he had met UVF members who said they were considering "taking action".

The Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, said a return to loyalist violence would be a "disaster" for the province. "There was a hint of this sort of action several months ago. Dissident elements from both the UDF and the UDA were threatening to combine. They were persuaded not to," he told BBC1's Breakfast With Frost programme."I hope this group can also be dissuaded from acting in the way that they threatened."

Billy Hutchinson, of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is close to the UVF, said he knew there were people who were "unhappy" but he believed the ceasefire would hold.