More blood in Ulster as Trimble and Adams stonewall over peace

AS NORTHERN Ireland's leaders clashed in Washington yesterday over decommissioning, blood was once again spilt on Ulster's streets as a leading loyalist was killed and sectarian violence flared.

The death of Frankie Curry on St Patrick's day, in the Protestant Shankill Road area of the city, momentarily looked like a spasm of republican retaliation for this week's loyalist assassination of the solicitor Rosemary Nelson in Co Armagh. But within hours it emerged that Curry's killers were loyalists.

Last night trouble erupted in Portadown, when nationalists and loyalists clashed in the nationalist Corcrain area of the town. Five people, including one RUC officer, needed hospital treatment.

RUC officers in riot gear were deployed and fired plastic bullets at both sides to disperse the mobs which had pelted each other with stones and petrol bombs. A number of vehicles was set on fire and one arrest was made.

The fact Curry lost his life to loyalist killers rather than republicans caused an immediate easing in a build-up of the tension caused by fears of a new tit-for-tat shooting war.

One small but violent group, the Red Hand Defenders, swore to take revenge on the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), which they blamed for the killing. The RHD has claimed that it killed Rosemary Nelson.

As preparations went on for today's funeral of the solicitor, nationalist and Unionist leaders attacked each other verbally in Washington, where they were due to meet President Bill Clinton.

The White House is hoping to help broker a solution to the impasse over the new Northern Ireland executive, which is deadlocked over the question of whether or not Sinn Fein can join without IRA arms decommissioning.

"It is not a question of whether, but a question of when," said David Trimble, the first minister-designate.

The Ulster Unionist Party leader insisted that without a first step on disarmament, Sinn Fein cannot join the executive. If there was pressure from outside for the executive to go ahead without decommissioning, "it won't last the day", Mr Trimble said.

He called for Protestant paramilitaries to take the first step towards decommissioning. But Gerry Adams was equally clear that the Good Friday Agreement did not require such a step.

"The President knows as well as Mr Trimble that IRA decommissioning is not a precondition for Sinn Fein to hold ministerial office," the Sinn Fein leader said.

Brushing aside Mr Trimble's concerns, Mr Adams said: "The demands he is making of me? I can't deliver those. He knows that. You know that. Everybody knows that."

A further postponement for the new Assembly beyond the 2 April deadline would be impossible, he said: "The British have already moved this deadline so many times they can't move it again."

But, behind the scenes, discussions have been going on about a possible formula to get around the problem. "The art of politics is to try and find the possible," the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, said.

The President was expected to tell Mr Adams and Mr Trimble that they must both yield ground. But there is suspicion and antagonism on both sides, and both believe that the other is stonewalling.

Mr Ahern, Mr Adams and Mr Trimble, along with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, were at a St Patrick's day dinner for the American-Ireland Fund in Washington on Tuesday night, and another vast party was due to be held on the White House lawn last night.

Mr Adams and Mr Trimble were also due to meet yesterday as part of the frenetic round of overlapping policy discussions and social events that mark the celebration of St Patrick's day in the United States capital.

Frankie Curry had been a leading figure in loyalist paramilitary circles for two decades. He was shot by three men on waste ground around lunchtime, and he met his death at almost the exact spot where his uncle, Gusty Spence, shot dead a Catholic man in one of the first UVF killings in 1966.

Yesterday, the Red Hand Defenders said the UVF had killed Frankie Curry.

The dead man had been within the loyalist paramilitary mainstream until a few years ago, when he was said to have linked up with the renegade Billy Wright, known as "King Rat". When Wright's organisation declared a ceasefire, Curry was reported to have moved on to support other still- active organisations, such as the RHD. Although the latter yesterday threatened several senior loyalist figures, the group claimed that Curry was not one of its members.

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