Mo steps into the lions' den

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Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, will tomorrow take the audacious step of meeting loyalist inmates in the Maze prison. David McKittrick and Colin Brown report on an unprecedented move aimed at breaking out of the cycle of violence and pessimism haunting Ulster.

Mo Mowlam last night denied her decision to visit loyalist prisoners - many serving life sentences for murder - was a last, desperate throw of the dice, or a public relations gesture. She was warned that the three- year loyalist ceasefire was in peril, at a meeting in London with Gary McMichael, the leader of the Ulster Democratic Party.

Ms Mowlam told The Independent that she was going to the Maze to tell the loyalist prisoners that the peace process was the "only show in town".

"If we don't move the talks forward, they aren't going to see progress on the things they want."

On the key loyalist demand for prisoners to be released, she added: "I will be saying to them that questions like prisoner release will have to be addressed in the context of the settlement."

While ministers have, over the years, visited the Maze prison for occasional tours, the Mowlam visit is for the specific purpose of talking to representatives of around 130 members of the illegal Ulster Defence Association, almost all of them convicted of terrorist-type offences.

One of their number, Michael Stone, is serving three life sentences for the murders of three Catholics at a republican funeral in 1988.

The news will be seen as a bold initiative by a highly active Northern Ireland Secretary, who has made personal contact one of the keynotes of her approach.

In one sense, the prisoners may be well-disposed towards her in that they will be impressed by the gesture of a Cabinet minister entering to Maze to hear their complaints in person. On the other hand they will not be pleased by her stance that accelerated releases are not on the immediate agenda.

Ministers have often met ex-prisoners - indeed most of those on the Sinn Fein and loyalist teams at the Stormont multi-party talks have been behind bars, some serving sentences for murder. But tomorrow's visit is seen as ground-breaking in its symbolism.

If it works, it will presumably be followed sooner or later by meetings with serving IRA prisoners. It will certainly be seen as a recognition of the often highly significant role played by prisoners in the peace process.

Although most of the UDA's prisoners approved of the organisation's ceasefire in 1994, many are since said to have become disillusioned by the lack of movement towards early releases from jail. Last weekend a majority of them voted to withhold their support from the peace process.

On Tuesday they apparently gave a rough ride to Gary McMichael, leader of the UDP, the UDA's political wing, when he attempted to persuade them to persevere with the peace process.

The general fear is that the souring of the prisoners' mood could eventually lead to the withdrawal of the UDP from the peace process, followed by the collapse of the loyalist ceasefire.

It is already suspected, in fact, that the UDA may already have made an unavowed return to violence by taking part in the killing of a Catholic man in north Belfast on New Year's Eve.

Mr McMichael said yesterday: "She is taking a risk in making this decision and we welcome that. Of course we have to look and see whether all we are doing is shifting the point of crisis from today to the Maze on Friday. By no means have we overcome the difficulties."

Meanwhile the Ulster Unionist Party, which has recently been highly critical of the Government, appears to have been mollified by its meeting on Tuesday with Tony Blair, which was by all accounts a constructive encounter. The Government is hoping to "kick-start" the talks by pushing for speedy progress.

A certain amount of bridge-building also seems to have been achieved at a meeting yesterday between the Irish foreign minister, David Andrews, and the Progressive Unionist Party, which speaks for the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force.

It is still, however, by no means certain that the PUP will be at the multi-party talks when they resume on Monday.