Minister acts over loyalist marches

Derry tinderbox: The Government seeks accord over possible 'Drumcree return match'
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The Independent Online
The Northern Ireland security minister, Sir John Wheeler, is to visit Londonderry to encourage moves towards a settlement in the increasingly tense build-up to loyalist marches in the city next month.

Sir John, who will visit the area in the next few days, is expected to meet representatives of local Catholics and the Apprentice Boys, who have so far failed to agree on a route for the parade on 12 August.

News of the visit came amid signs last night that all-party talks at Stormont were close to an agreement on procedural rules that would allow full discussions to begin on Monday.

In another move, Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, announced an investigation into the RUC's use of plastic bullets in the recent riots.

He also said the terms of reference for the review of parades and marches will cover the "possible need for new machinery" to determine how they should take place and the need for a code of practice. The review team will include a judicial figure.

After almost four hours the main parties ended talks at Stormont last night expressing "cautious optimism" that an agreement was in sight to start full, all-party negotiations in the Northern Ireland peace talks.

The Ulster Unionists and SDLP broadly accepted proposals on procedures by the talks chairman, Senator George Mitchell. But today there will be last-minute discussions on 19 amendments proposed by the Democratic Unionists and the UK Unionists who do not wish talks to discuss the constitutional position of the province.

Discussions today will also attempt to hammer out an agreement on an agenda for the talks. It it is hoped Senator Mitchell will be able to announce on Monday an agreement for the all-party negotiations before the summer recess, which is due to start in the middle of next week.

Despite these apparently hopeful signs, tensions in Londonderry rose further yesterday, with nationalists warning that there would be a bleak outlook for peace if no agreement was found over the route for the Protestant parade around the old walls of the city centre.

Many see the issue as a return match after Drumcree, with a chance for the Catholics to "equalise" the score by stopping the Apprentice Boys. Mark Durkan, an SDLP councillor, said the Apprentice Boys and residents in the Catholic Bogside should meet in talks: "We want to avoid a clash of bodies and the serious consequences which could flow from that."

Some nationalists, who have organised a counter-protest in the Protestant Waterside area of Londonderry today, want the Apprentice Boys not to march on the section of wall overlooking the Bogside; hardliners want to stop loyalists marching into the city at all. Last night the Apprentice Boys' representatives ruled out calling off the walk around the city walls.