March talks come to nothing

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Bosnian-style "proximity talks" on the contentious Drumcree loyalist parade broke down without agreement last night, leaving the authorities facing crucial decisions on whether to ban or allow the march.

The talks were regarded as a last-ditch attempt to avoid a repetition of last year's tumultuous marching season when disturbances which began at Drumcree and spread to many areas of Northern Ireland.

The government-sponsored talks, conducted by Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, opened yesterday morning on the neutral ground of Hillsborough Castle in a quiet area of Co Down. They broke up without agreement, with both the Orange Order and Catholic residents claiming their reasonable proposals had been turned down.

The fact that the two sides had agreed even to this limited discourse was regarded as an advance in itself, though the surrounding atmospherics were anything but promising. The Orange Order insists on the right to walk down the Catholic Garvaghy Road after its Drumcree church service on 6 July; The residents insist they have the right to say no.

Meanwhile, the IRA's campaign of violence persists at a low but potentially lethal level, with police escaping injury in a rocket attack on vehicles in north Belfast late on Thursday night. The message from republicans appears to be that, while the idea of a renewed ceasefire is not ruled out, the IRA feels free to carry out such attacks up to the point any new cessation comes into effect.

In the Irish Republic, police were investigating a suspected IRA terrorist training camp close to the border in County Cavan.

Discussions on the Drumcree march opened yesterday in proximity talks format because of the Orange Order's refusal to talk directly to Brendan McKenna, spokesman for Garvaghy Road residents, because he served a prison sentence for republican offences in the 1970s.

The two sides arrived by different entrances and were housed in separate parts of the sprawling castle. Precautions were taken to ensure that the two delegations did not meet by chance, with Dr Mowlam, as one observer put it, marching from one side to the other.

The Orange Order negotiating team included the Portadown district master, Harold Gracey, who has a reputation as a hardliner on the marching issue, together with the Armagh county grand master, Dennis Watson, and three other district officers.

The nationalist delegation was led by Brendan McKenna and Father Eamon Stack, a Jesuit priest. On his arrival Mr McKenna said: "Let's be honest about it, people here say that Portadown is a microcosm of the six counties. There's no quick fixes to the problems in the North and there's no quick fix in Portadown."

In an opening statement, Dr Mowlam said she was determined to leave no stone unturned to prevent a re-run of last year's violence. She added: "These proximity talks represent a genuine attempt in good faith to find a way through a complex and highly-emotive problem."

A number of government officials were on call in Hillsborough Castle together with a number of others including Ronnie Flanagan, chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.