Threats of violence as Maze talks stall

Warning from Loyalists in dispute over jail clampdown
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The Independent Online
The dispute at Northern Ireland's Maze prison rumbled ominously on yesterday, with representatives of loyalist inmates failing to reach agreement with the authorities.

Several dozen prisoners affiliated to the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association are protesting against a tightening of security by the authorities. Explicit threats have been made by the parent group against the authorities.

Prisoners set fire to observation posts at the prison, which is situated several miles outside Belfast, while some clambered on to the roof of some of the "H-blocks".

More talks are to be held today. The threat of violence is being taken seriously, since at last three prison officers have been shot dead by loyalists over the years, and many more have been injured in the prison. A number involved in the protests are regarded as particularly militant, including some serving sentences for murder.

UDA prisoners were disciplined by the authorities after refusing to co- operate with new measures, which include twice-daily lock-ups, more head- counts and more random searches.

The loyalists claim they are being penalised for the behaviour of the IRA, since the clampdown was instituted following the discovery of an IRA tunnel out of the prison.

Yesterday talks took place at Stormont Castle between senior civil servants and members of the Ulster Democratic party, headed by Gary McMichael. The party's prison spokesman, John White, himself a former life prisoner at the Maze, said afterwards: "Unfortunately we were not able to resolve the situation. We put proposals on the table and we're having a meeting tomorrow to continue our discussions. It means the demonstration will go on, unfortunately, but there is still the hope that tomorrow we may get some answers to some of the suggestions that we made."

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, said: "There is no excuse for loyalist factions issuing threats to staff and I condemn this action unreservedly. The new measures are not a punishment for anyone, they are quite simply the very minimum that the public can expect to ensure the safety of staff and prisoners."

Meanwhile, Finlay Spratt, chairman of the Prison Officers Association, called for the resignation of the prison administration, describing it as incompetent. He added: "It's the job of the authorities to run the jail, and it's our job to apply the rules, but this crisis has been brought about by an incompetent management and they should resign."

The UDA, using its cover-name of Ulster Freedom Fighters, warned that if riot squads were sent in they would ensure the authorities would "pay a price". It added: "The ball is with the prison authorities. They know how to bring this matter to an end." Yesterday several hundred people, most of them relatives of the prisoners involved, staged a demonstration outside the prison.