Maze meetings fail to soften loyalist attitude to talks

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Tensions remained high in Northern Ireland yesterday as one set of loyalist prisoners stuck to their position of refusing to endorse the peace process. David McKittrick, Ireland Correspondent, on desperate attempts to maintain the ceasefire.

Ulster Defence Association prisoners inside the Maze prison were apparently unmoved by arguments put forward by their political representatives, the Ulster Democratic Party, during a visit to the jail. Afterwards, UDP leader Gary McMichael described the situation as precarious.

Later, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and colleagues spent three hours visiting both UDA and Ulster Volunteer Force prisoners at the prison. UUP MP Ken Maginnis said of the inmates: "They are very concerned about the situation outside."

The Government is anxious that the loyalist ceasefire should be maintained, but is resisting demands to accomplish this by freeing loyalist prisoners. It is also anxious to ensure that those speaking for both the UDA and UVF will be present when multi-party talks resume at Stormont next Monday. At the moment, the participation of both is in doubt. Mr McMichael said he intended to hold further meetings with the leadership of the UDA outside the prison and with the Secretary of State, Mo Mowlam.

Ms Mowlam also met the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, who claimed that the UUP's refusal to engage in talks with republicans had created a vacuum which was being filled by loyalist killings of innocent Catholics. He declared: "The Orange card is being played and there is an attempt to assert a Unionist veto."

The Progressive Unionist party, political wing of the UVF, is to hold talks today with the Irish foreign minister, David Andrews, whom the party has recently accused of insensitivity. Mr Andrews said yesterday that he supported the PUP in seeking the early release of loyalist prisoners. Ms Mowlam has however said that she does not envisage such releases.

Opinions differ sharply on whether the present air of crisis is genuine or contains an element of contrivance. While some spokesmen have been at pains not to exacerbate the situation, others have sought to raise the temperature. Billy Wright's assassination inside the Maze clearly created a wave of turbulence which is buffeting the peace process. In nationalist circles there has been much comment on what is perceived to be a lack of condemnation from Unionism of the deaths of two Catholics killed in retaliation for the death of Wright.

A Belfast priest, Father Paddy McCafferty, said of Unionist leaders in a letter to the Irish Times: "Some of these leading figures seem to be utterly unmoved by the sufferings of the Catholic community. They always qualify their so-called condemnations by implying that the actions of sectarian serial killers in their own community are understandable because they are being provoked. This can only be described as crass hypocrisy."