Rancorous parties try to salvage peace process

Ulster in turmoil: Bitter exchanges at Stormont as police confirm cache netted material for 36 bombs
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The main political parties gathered in Stormont, Belfast, yesterday for the first time since violence erupted last week, to survey the tattered remains of the peace process, while brimming with recriminations.

Even relations between Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Secretary, remained frigid after bitter exchanges between the two governments over the handling of the Orangemen's parade in Drumcree.

Mr Spring said last night they had chosen to postpone discussion of their differences until the Anglo/Irish conference tomorrow. But the atmosphere was tense. He said: "Irrespective of how bad relations will be between governments at any time, what's important is that we get back to working together because we've always achieved more with common policies. That's not to underestimate the difficulties or differences we've had over the past 10 days."

Sir Patrick insisted it had been a day "well spent" but acknowledged the difficult circumstances. He said: "There is a common determination this process should be carried forward."

In a bid to relieve the tension in Northern Ireland, the army's spearhead battalion, sent in last week, was withdrawn yesterday. This brought the number of troops down to the same level as just before the IRA ceasefire.

But David Ervine, spokesman for the Progressive Unionist Party summed up the pessimism surrounding the meetings yesterday morning. He said: "I suppose the best they can hope for is they don't break up after 30 seconds."

Among the politicians at Stormont were David Trimble, Ulster Unionist Party leader, the Rev Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, David Hume, leader of the Social and Democratic Labour Party, Dr John Alderdice, of the Alliance Party. All were grim-faced, all throwing accusations at each other over the derailed peace process. They had individual sessions with the US Senator, George Mitchell, chairman of the peace talks.

Mr Mitchell said: "We recognise the extreme difficulties of the talks now underway, especially in the current climate. But we are convinced that progress is possible. In any event, the talks represent the only acceptable alternative."

Much of the tension centred on the revelation that Mr Trimble had held a meeting with Billy Wright, a loyalist with paramilitary links, and claims he supported the violence last week. He dismissed them yesterday as "untrue and outlandish".

According to his opponents this breached the Mitchell principles set up as the guidelines for the talks. They state that delegates should not support violence or the threat of violence in any form.

Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the SDLP, called the meeting "intolerable".

As the delegates prepared for their meetings with Senator Mitchell, Sinn Fein delegates arrived at the gates of the Stormont Estate to protest against their exclusion. Martin McGuinness accused Mr Trimble of leading an "armed rebellion" last week. He said: "These talks are a complete debacle. They are an utter shambles."

Mr Paisley attacked the SDLP for withdrawing from the Forum set up to aid the peace talks, and claimed they too should be excluded.

Meanwhile in his meeting with Sir Patrick, Mr Trimble suggested that the four main parties should have a meeting with John Major. Mr Hume and the three SDLP MPs are meeting the Prime Minister this afternoon.

Anthony Bevins, page 15