Republicans play the waiting game

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Multi-party talks reconvene at Stormont today in the absence of Sinn Fein, with republicans refusing to confirm they will go back to the table when their suspension expires on 9 May.

With the peace process going through a particularly uncertain phase, the British and Irish governments will be seeking to use the period of their absence to make arrangements for a last-minute dash for agreement during April. The general view is that only limited progress can be made before the two governments spirit the parties away to a remote location - Finland and Iceland have been mentioned - for intensive eleventh-hour negotiations.

In the meantime Sinn Fein, though excluded from the talks, has succeeded in maintaining itself as the centre of attention. At the moment the issue is whether Tony Blair will agree to Sinn Fein's request for a meeting during their term of suspension. Mr Blair has yet to reply.

Such a meeting would be frowned on by Unionists, but might help to reassure republican grassroots, which are showing distinct signs of disillusionment with the peace process. While there is no evidence of a popular desire for a return to war, many republicans are clearly disgruntled with the exclusion of Sinn Fein and the fact that the talks as yet show little sign of producing something to their liking.

While Sinn Fein leaders hinted at the weekend that boycotting the talks could not be ruled out, especially if Mr Blair refused a meeting, it seems unlikely that a republican leadership which has expended so much political capital on getting into talks should voluntarily turn its back on them.

But while there is probably an element of brinkmanship in the republican position, it is none the less the case that their grassroots have lost a fair amount of faith in the talks. It also makes sense tactically for the republicans to reserve their position for the moment, since the process is in a particularly unpredictable phase.

Groups outside the process such as the republican Continuity army council, which is suspected of wrecking much of the Co Down town of Moira with a bomb on Friday night, and the Loyalist Volunteer Force, may well step up their violence as the talks process nears its end. Such acts of violence might well affect the course of the process in the coming weeks.

Mitchel McLaughlin of Sinn Fein said yesterday: "We are in some difficulty in convincing people that there is any benefit at all in returning in those circumstances, because the same specious grounds could be used to eject us once again. It could happen again, on the basis of events on the grounds over which we have no direct responsibility or control."

The funeral took place yesterday of Kevin Conway, the 30-year-old Catholic father of four who was shot at Aghalee in Co Antrim.

Security sources say they believe republicans were responsible but have refrained from pointing the finger at the IRA. The motivation for the murder was said to be "criminal rather than sectarian."

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