Dr Mo Mowlam met people from two loyalist groupings, the Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party, and from Sinn Fein, which under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement are obliged to use their influence to bring paramilitary shootings and beatings to an end.
But the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, and the party's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, said they had boycotted the meeting in Belfast because the Northern Ireland Office had "hyped it into something it was not." More junior Sinn Fein figures went in their place.
Dr Mowlam clearly challenged all the groupings on why such attacks were continuing, and on what they were doing to have them stopped. None of the parties involved appears to have accepted any responsibility for the attacks.
David Ervine, of the Progressive Unionists, indicated that Dr Mowlam had taken a tough line at their meeting, describing her approach as "hard- hitting". He said, however, that the minister had not actually delivered any ultimatum to his party. He reiterated his party's opposition to such attacks, describing them as "immoral and reprehensible".
Gary McMichael, leader of the UDP, said later: "It would be wrong for anyone to suggest that there isn't a degree of support for this. People do go to paramilitaries, particularly those who are direct victims. I argue that it is wrong but that doesn't make it go away.
"We're working on the ground to encourage people to change their attitudes, to go to the police with their problems."
"Punishment" beatings and shootings by the IRA and loyalist paramilitary groups have continued in Belfast and elsewhere, the latest attacks taking place not long before yesterday's meetings.
In Rasharkin, Co Antrim an 18-year-old youth suffered head and face injuries when three masked men burst into his house and beat him with clubs, in what is presumed to have been a loyalist attack. A second man in the house escaped injury by jumping out of a first- floor window. Earlier in what appeared to be another paramilitary-style shooting at Maghera, Co Londonderry, a man was shot in the leg.
According to the Royal Ulster Constabulary there have been 28 attacks so far this year, 14 each by loyalists and republicans. In 1996, the worst year for such attacks, loyalists and republicans were responsible for a combined total of 326 shootings and beatings.
According to figures collated by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, this dropped last year to 213. Attacks by the IRA, which in 1996 amounted to 175, last year dropped to a figure of 93. Thus the security forces are dealing not with a surge of assaults but with the continuation of an activity that has been an unwelcome but familiar feature of Belfast ghetto life since the early Seventies when, for example, the IRA would "tar and feather" girls said to have fraternised with soldiers.
The Government's quandary now is how to approach an issue that has become bound up with the overall peace process. On one reading anyone linked to groups involved in such violence should be unceremoniously ejected from the process. The Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, has signalled that if the IRA has not decommissioned weapons by March 10 he will formally seek to have Sinn Fein excluded from the new Northern Ireland administration.
The counter-argument is that it will take some time for groupings that are, hopefully, making the journey from terrorism into democracy to shake off all their previous trappings of violence. The Tory leader, William Hague, reiterated his call for early prisoner releases to stop, saying the paramilitaries were in breach of the Good Friday Agreement, and ofTony Blair's promise that the agreement meant an end to violence. "We are now seeing beatings escalate, without any guns or bombs being decommissioned," Mr Haig said.
"They [the Government] are actually throwing away their negotiating cards and we are getting nearer to a point when there will be no terrorists left in prison. Mo Mowlam should be telling them today that unless they start to give up their guns and bombs and put an end to terrorist mutilations, then prisoner releases will be put on hold," he added.Reuse content