Riots obstruct path to peace in Ulster

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The Independent Online
The Northern Ireland peace process took two steps back with rioting in Londonderry at the weekend, and one tentative pace forward with speculation that Unionists might agree to meet Sinn Fein. David McKittrick, Ireland Correspondent, reports.

While the possibility of an encounter between David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams remains conjecture, the weekend rioting in Londonderry came as a reminder that relations among nationalists, Unionists and the RUC are in many areas poor.

As so often, the outbreak of rioting followed a controversial loyalist march in Londonderry city on Saturday. Weeks of sensitive negotiations involving loyalists, nationalists, the police and others failed to maintain order as more than 1,000 petrol bombs were thrown, mainly at the police, by nationalist rioters.

Police replied with 169 plastic bullets; 13 arrests were made while five police officers were injured, none of them seriously. The worst injury was sustained by an 11-year-old boy hit on the head with a stone, whose condition was described as ill but stable.

Much damage was done by fires started by petrol-bombs. Police said yesterday that the violence was planned and directed by "a small extreme group planning provocation, confrontation and violence". The authorities will be hoping the incident localised.

Meanwhile, in an interview on Irish television, Mr Trimble appeared to temper his normally forthright condemnation of Sinn Fein. Asked about a meeting with Gerry Adams he replied: "So many things are possible. We have seen actually in the past people who have forsaken terrorism and genuinely changed into democrats. ... It is perfectly possible that Gerry Adams can follow that path. And in that sense, I do not rule this out. It is possible."

Since it has been more than half a century since Unionist and republican leaders met, such an encounter would be a momentous one. But the weekend also brought much more negative comments from Unionist sources, so that such a ground-breaking meeting may remain unlikely in the short term.

Mr Adams has repeatedly suggested such a meeting, renewing his calls after his meeting with Tony Blair in Downing Street this week. In Belfast today the multi-party talks resume, with both London and Dublin anxious to achieve some movement before their Christmas recess.