RUC and Unionists clash as McGuinness raises stakes

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Police clashed with loyalist demonstrators yesterday as they tried to keep them away from a nationalist parade. At least one RUC officer suffered a head injury when missiles were thrown Lurgan, Co Armagh.

A few hundred Protestants had gathered to protest against a planned Sinn Fein demonstration which the Ulster Unionist MP, David Trimble, described as "provocative". A former mayor, Sammy Gardiner, said loyalists were unhappy about "IRA-Sinn Fein coming into an area where there had been so many bombings".

Peace talks in Ulster faced a new setback yesterday when Sinn Fein warned there was "not the remotest possibility" of the IRA surrendering weapons before a full political settlement.

Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Fein spokesman, called on the Government to kick-start the peace process - after a ceasefire now 11 months old - by moving swiftly to all-party talks in the province.

Senior Conservative MP, Andrew Hunter, chairman of the Tory backbench Northern Ireland committee, insisted that no talks were possible without a handover of IRA arms.

Mr McGuinness claimed that no group in Ulster - even loyalists - expected the IRA to give up its guns. "There is no possibility whatsoever, not even the remotest possibility that the IRA will surrender its weapons this side of a negotiated settlement," he said on Breakfast with Frost, on BBC 1.

"Many people within the British establishment and the British military accept that. Our focus has to be on the reality many people out there, one year on, expect the British Government to join the Dublin Government to bring all the parties to the negotiating table.

"All these matters which have been raised now, which many people see as distractions and lame excuses to prevent all-party talks, can be moved to one side and dealt with sensibly in the longer term to allow us to get on with the business of negotiating a final settlement of this conflict."

Mr Hunter warned that there was a growing danger of the unionist community feeling isolated. "Unless unionist confidence can be restored there is going to be no settlement," he said on the same programme.

"There can be no all-party talks until or unless decommissioning of weapons is well under way ... There will not be these all-party talks until there is confidence in the procedure and that confidence is not there while Sinn Fein keep their guns and their position."

Behind-the-scenes negotiations in Ulster are believed to have stalled on the issues of decommissioning and the release of prisoners.

The Government insists Sinn Fein cannot join other parties at the negotiating table until substantial progress has been made towards giving up arms - possibly to a neutral third party - and rejects the claim that terrorist inmates were guilty of political crimes.

Pressure for movement on the release of prisoners intensified after the decision of the Dublin Government to free a further 12 convicted IRA men on Saturday. Loyalist groups are as anxious as the republicans to see their paramilitaries freed.

Gary McMichael, whose Ulster Democratic Party has close links with the loyalists, said the Irish government's moves served to highlight the necessity for action by the British Government. "All political prisoners must be released as part of the process of resolving this conflict," he said.