Threats throw Ulster peace into turmoil

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The Independent Online
THE NORTHERN Ireland peace talks were in turmoil last night with bitter recriminations, threats of renewed bombing campaigns, warnings of legal actions, but no sign of a compromise.

As the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and President Bill Clinton were all dragged into the deepening crisis, the key words in Belfast appeared to be "incontrovertible evidence".

That is what Sinn Fein and the Social and Democratic labour Party (SDLP) were saying that the Royal Ulster Constabulary must provide of IRA involvement in two murders before the expulsion of Sinn Fein from the peace talks could be considered under the Mitchell peace principles.

The day's drama began with the announcement that the Chief Constable of the RUC, Ronnie Flanagan, had told the Government that the IRA was involved in the murder of loyalist Bobby Dougan and drug dealer Brendan Campbell.

Mr Blair had already spoken to Mr Ahern about the matter on Thursday night in a 15-minute telephone call, soon after Mr Flanagan had passed on his views to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam. This was followed by another 15-minute call to President Clinton at the White House by Mr Blair .

Yesterday, during a visit to Enniskillen in the Province, Ms Mowlam said "The integrity of the talks process and the commitment to exclusively peaceful means are paramount and all parties must be treated fairly and equally." Ms Mowlam refused to be drawn on whether she considered the available evidence to be "incontrovertible" simply adding that London and Dublin would "very carefully" consider the situation with the other parties to the talks.

Unionist politicians were demanding that Sinn Fein should be kicked out of the talks, just as the Ulster Democratic Party were after one of its linked organisations, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, had admitted responsibility for the murders of three Catholics.

The UDP, it has been indicated by the government, would be allowed back into the talks after serving a "suspension".

But Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble questioned whether Sinn Fein should ever be let back into the peace process having "twice dishonoured it" - with the breaking of the first ceasefire and now the alleged murders. MP Jeffrey Donaldson of the UUP warned that his party would consider asking for a judicial review of the matter if effective action was not taken.

But Sinn Fein emphasised that the RUC had not provided any evidence to link their "inflammatory" claims of IRA responsibility for the murders and repeated the warning by president Gerry Adams that without his party's involvement in the talks there would be no peace.

Asking for Mr Flanagan to provide "incontrovertible evidence", as it had been the case with the UDP's expulsion, chairman Mitchell McLaughlin said: "If can be demonstrated that my party dishonoured or broke any of the commitments, fair enough, treat us as you'd any other party in similar circumstances. But that evidence, if it wouldn't stand up in a court of law, could hardly justify throwing my party out of negotiations."

The RUC were questioning 10 people after the shooting of Mr Dougan, a prominent member of the Ulster Defence Association. Out of those only three are now left in custody, and it is possible that if there is not enough evidence to continue holding or charging them they will be released on Sunday night, before the talks move onto Dublin the following day, where the future of Sinn Fein in the peace process will be decided.