Mayhew dismisses IRA as criminal gangsters

The Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, launched a strong attack on the IRA yesterday as army experts spent the day dealing with a suspect bomb in a van in north Belfast.

Bomb-disposal personnel carried out a controlled explosion on a van parked in the grounds of Belfast Castle on Tuesday night. A telephone caller who gave a recognised IRA codeword said a landmine had been abandoned in the grounds because of security activity in the area.

In a BBC radio interview yesterday, Sir Patrick concentrated his fire on the IRA, saying that the Government had been flexible in the peace process but had had its efforts rejected. He added: "I'm afraid it demonstrates that those who have said that the IRA are nothing but a lot of criminal gangsters, who will continue to wave the Armalite in one hand while using the ballot box in the other, were right."

The placing of the Belfast Castle device fits into the recently established pattern of the IRA attempting to carry out bomb attacks, in Belfast and elsewhere, every few days. Most of the attempts have been abortive, for various reasons, but both republicans and the security forces predict that it is only a matter of time before one of the attacks "connects" and causes casualties.

The most notorious of the IRA attacks came just before Christmas, when a gunman opened fire on police officers in the corridor of children's hospital in Belfast. This caused widespread condemnation and led to two loyalist bomb attacks.

In another incident, a well-known north Belfast republican, Eddie Copeland, was injured when a booby-trap bomb went off under his car. Another similar device was attached to a vehicle belonging to a former republican prisoner in Londonderry, but this was spotted.

Although no organisation has openly admitted responsibility for the attacks, security sources hold the Ulster Defence Association responsible. Loyalist sources confirm this privately. In addition to the attacks, two senior republican figures, Martin McGuinness and Belfast councillor Alex Maskey, have been warned by the RUC that their lives are in danger.

Asked yesterday about loyalist violence, Sir Patrick was determinedly reticent, in contrast to his uninhibited rhetoric against the republicans. He said he did not think the loyalist ceasefire was over, adding of the Copeland bomb attack: "I don't as yet know, and I don't think anybody as yet knows, who did that evil thing."

This is at odds with the security assessment that the UDA was undoubtedly responsible. Sir Patrick's circumspection is assumed to be related to the Stormont political talks, in which a UDA-related group, the Ulster Democratic Party, is taking part. A clear public linkage of the bombings to the UDA would endanger the UDP's continuing involvement in the talks. The Government and most other parties are anxious to avoid the expulsion of the loyalists, which means that at present most are refraining from publicly pointing the finger.

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