Mowlam calls for calm as Ulster looks into the abyss

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The Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, yesterday warned of a dangerous and testing time for the province. Following the murder of loyalist leader Billy Wright and the retaliatory killing of a republican, David McKittrick, Ireland Correspondent, says the authorities fear the murders could touch off a new cycle of attacks.

The greatest fear among both politicians and security forces in Ulster is that the violence might spread from the splinter groups currently involved to mainstream loyalist groupings.

Such a development could not only cost lives but also threaten the peace process by undermining the political talks which are scheduled to restart on 12 January.

The Irish National Liberation Army has claimed responsibility for Saturday's killing inside the Maze prison of Billy Wright, the Mid-Ulster loyalist known as King Rat who was reputedly involved in dozens of killings. Wright's organisation, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, has in turn claimed responsibility for Saturday night's attack on the Glengannon Hotel in Co Tyrone, in which one man was killed and three others injured.

Serving notice of further violence, the LVF said: "This attack and future attacks lay squarely at the feet of republicans. For too long the Protestant people have watched their very faith, culture and identity being slowly eroded away."

The man killed in the Co Tyrone attack, 45-year old Seamus Dillon, was a former IRA prisoner who was released in 1994 after serving a lengthy sentence for murder. He and two other doormen at the hotel were injured when two gunmen fired at least 18 bullets at them as they stood outside a disco. One bullet went through a window and hit a 14-year-old boy.

Ms Mowlam said yesterday: "Everyone has been well aware that there are splinter groups, from whatever side, that are a current threat to the peace process. We knew there would be testing moments. Let us meet this test and resolve to make progress out of it. It is a dangerous time. It is a testing time. I do not in any way underestimate the seriousness of it. We have to keep it in perspective: this is going to be the first of many testing times in the months ahead."

The minister's sentiments were, unusually, echoed by Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, who said: "This is a very difficult and dangerous time. People need to draw breath and recognise that there are two roads before us. One is the road to further conflict, one is the road to the negotiating table."

Amid other calls for calm, Ulster Unionist security spokesman Ken Maginnis MP again called for the resignation of Ms Mowlam and senior officials, declaring: "I think we need a clean sweep. People are fed up with the instability that has been caused by the machinations of Mo Mowlam."

However, Progressive Unionist Party leader David Ervine said: "If I want to attack Mo Mowlam, I will do so on the basis of issues that I genuinely have disagreements with her. I won't use the like of this to attempt to damage her."

Mr Ervine, whose party is associated with one of the major loyalist paramilitary groups, appealed for calm, saying: "Violence from one side merely fuels a sense of retribution required from the other, and the cycle begins and in many ways just seems never ending. We should not do what people expect from us, but this is Northern Ireland, and violence begets violence."