Mowlam seeks to speed up Ulster talks

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The Independent Online
Multi-party talks resumed yesterday in Northern Ireland overshadowed by uncertainties on the state of play within the IRA and Sinn Fein, the fear of a violent marching season and generally low expectations of early breakthroughs.

The funeral of an RUC officer, kicked to death by drunken loyalists in a mob attack sparked by Protestant objections to RUC policing of parades, cast a further pall over proceedings. Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, warned that "a period of deep potential instability" lay ahead, with an obvious increase already in "sectarian bigotry."

In the face of these difficulties Ms Mowlam sought to inject impetus into the talks process by indicating that she wanted the parties to move on to substantive discussions in weeks.

This is seen as a hugely ambitious objective, given that the talks will shortly reach their first anniversary following a year of snail's-pace argument which has not yet even managed to produce an agreed agenda.

Meeting Ms Mowlam's target will therefore require a sharp burst of acceleration. This does not seem likely to happen, this week at least, given that the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists are staying away from the talks until the Northern Ireland Forum, an adjunct of the talks proper, meets on Friday.

The parties have yet to agree on how to deal with the controversial issue of arms decommissioning which dominated proceedings for much of the past year. The next few weeks will provide a test of whether the talks are to remain stalled or whether movement is a possibility.

As the parties gathered at the Stormont complex in east Belfast, a Sinn Fein delegation headed by the party's president, Gerry Adams, arrived at the gates to enact the now-familiar ritual in which the republicans are denied entry because of the absence of an IRA ceasefire.

This time they arrived to find the gates padlocked. The delegation handed in letters to the British and Irish governments, addressed the media, and left. Dublin's representative in the talks, Dick Spring, the foreign minister, replied that if the IRA declared a new ceasefire the governments could move very quickly in response. He added: "The reality for Sinn Fein is that they have the key in their own pocket."

In the meantime both governments appear to have left the door ajar for Sinn Fein, even after the weekend's 1,000lb IRA bombing attempt in west Belfast. Both London and Dublin have refrained from breaking off contacts with the republicans, even though Tony Blair had indicated that the communication link could depend on "events on the ground".

There is still general puzzlement about what the IRA hoped to gain with the bomb attack. Republicans were clearly anxious both to keep open their lines to the governments and to win a seat in this week's Irish general election, and the attempted bombing endangered both.

The Church of Ireland Bishop of Connor, the Right Rev James Moore, told mourners at the funeral of Constable Gregory Taylor that his killing was "savage in the extreme".

The chairman of the Northern Ireland Police Federation, Les Rodgers, meanwhile delivered a stinging attack on loyalist politicians. "Even the most eminent of the politicians in this community," he said, "had no hesitation in employing the cowardly tactic of reminding officers that they know where our homes and families are." He said they had a duty to ensure that inflammatory words did not spur on "their wilder supporters" to attacks on police homes.