Montgomery to be Ulster go-between

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The Independent Online
DAVID MONTGOMERY has emerged as a go-between for Tony Blair in the efforts to try to end an impasse over parades in Northern Ireland.

Downing Street confirmed yesterday that the former chief executive of the Mirror Group has been involved in talks to end the protest by Loyalists over the refusal to allow them to march through Drumcree.

Mr Montgomery, regarded as a committed Ulsterman with strong "Orange" credentials, has not been given a specific task, but he is being encouraged to use his "very constructive influence" on the Loyalists to reach a compromise before their protest reignites the long-running battle over the right to march through a republican community at Portadown.

"He has been involved in discussions with us about Drumcree," said the Prime Minister's official spokesman. "There is no specific role."

It is believed Mr Montgomery, who was forced out of his post last month after seven years in charge of the Mirror Group, has been engaged in talks with Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister's chief of staff.

The Government, however, is putting more store in Frank Blair, director in Scotland of the conciliation service Acas, in the hope that his arbitration skills will negotiate a way through the impasse with the Orangemen. The Acas chief has been asked by Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to take a personal role in seeking a resolution to the dispute.

Mr Montgomery, who resigned after a falling-out with City investors, has a reputation as a hard-headed negotiator and he may be able to command the respect of the Orangemen who have been impervious to all the attempts at persuasion by the Government.

Described as a "nervy Presbyterian", Mr Montgomery swept out the excesses inherited from the late Robert Maxwell and quickly impressed the City backers by his cost cutting at the Mirror Group.

But Mr Montgomery was hated by some of his staff for his ruthless readiness to sack people and cut editorial costs in his former empire which, at one time, included The Independent. Under his direction, the Mirror Group bought the Belfast Newsletter, a strongly Loyalist newspaper.

The Drumcree protests, which flared into a bloody series of running battles with police last summer, threaten to form an ugly backdrop to the search for lasting peace unless the symbolic dispute over Loyalists' claims to a right to march in certain areas is resolved.

Tony Blair will today discuss the 10 March deadline for the handover of powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly with Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister.

The Ulster Unionist leader and First Minister, David Trimble, is insisting on a start to weapons decommissioning by the IRA before appointing Sinn Fein leaders to seats in his power-sharing cabinet. But the two governments are seeking ways to keep up the momentum towards the handover date, including signing a treaty confirming the powers of the Assembly.