Major tries to save loyalist ceasefire

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The Prime Minister will meet fringe Unionist leaders with links to loyalist paramilitaries today, amid growing concern that the loyalist ceasefire is in jeopardy, writes Rebecca Fowler.

John Major will meet a joint delegation from the Progressive Unionist Party, including the leader David Ervine, and from the Ulster Democratic Party, led by Gary McMichael, at Downing Street to discuss the future of the peace talks.

It is understood to be the first time that a British prime minister has held talks directly with the parties who have links to the UDA and UVF paramilitaries which announced a ceasefire six weeks after the IRA in 1994.

Mr McMichael said that he would be calling for a crackdown on the IRA in an attempt to salvage the peace process, following separate requests from both parties to speak to Mr Major.

He said: "It's up to all of us to do what we can to salvage the situation. But there needs to be a strong hand from the government to isolate those republicans who want to agitate and return to violence."

There are also fears that the loyalist Apprentice Boys' march in Londonderry, on 10 August, will provoke further clashes with nationalists and bring Northern Ireland back to the brink of disaster. Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State Northern Ireland, will meet the Apprentice Boys at Stormont in Belfast this week to discuss possible routes for the parade, which ended in widespread violence in 1969 at the beginning of the Troubles.

Even last summer, when, following the ceasefire, the parade returned to its traditional route around the city walls for the first time in 25 years, violence broke out between loyalists and nationalists.

More than 15,000 loyalists are expected to attend the parade to commemorate the siege of the city in 1689. They hope to march around the city walls in the morning, and through the city centre for a church service at St Columb's Cathedral in the afternoon. Most likely flashpoints are with Protestants on the Fountain estate, and with Catholics from the Bogside estate. Talks between loyalists and the nationalists who live there are understood to have broken down.

At rallies in Londonderry last weekend nationalists also spoke of blockading the Craigavon Bridge to keep the parade out of the city. Gregory Campbell, a DUP member and an Apprentice Boy, said: "What cannot be up for negotiation is the right of the Apprentice Boys, who live and work in the city, to parade along the city's walls."

He added: "Nor the right of the Apprentice Boys to come into the city- centre side of the river where they have their headquarters, where there is a Protestant Cathedral, and the Protestant Fountain estate."