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Bishops warn against 'verbal terrorism': Ulster politicians are told to temper their language. David McKittrick reports

CATHOLIC and Protestant bishops in Northern Ireland yesterday called on politicians to temper their language following a series of Unionist speeches and statements of an allegedly inflammatory nature.

A number of senior Unionist politicians have issued warnings of a possible violent loyalist backlash, if the present Anglo-Irish negotiations result in an outcome unacceptable to Unionist opinion.

Yesterday, a Catholic bishop cautioned: 'There is such a thing as verbal terrorism'; his Protestant counterpart said: 'Words can kill.'

The Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr Patrick Walsh, was speaking at the funerals of John Todd, 31, and Brian Duffy, 15, who were gunned down by loyalist extremists at a taxi rank in north Belfast on Sunday night.

Bishop Walsh said: 'I ask today that all those who are in positions of leadership should examine their consciences - 'Have I, as a leader, especially as an elected representative, said or done anything in these past weeks that could have heightened fears, inflamed passions or fuelled sectarian bigotry?'

'Let us not forget that words can be violent. There is such a thing as verbal terrorism. Words can kill, and as we examine our consciences before God, we might reflect on the words of the psalm: 'They sharpen their tongues like swords, they aim bitter words like arrows'.'

Tuesday night's shooting of a man in east Belfast means that loyalists have killed three Catholics in 48 hours. The situation is tense in many parts of the city, with the Protestant groups evidently bent on increasing their violence. The loyalist groups often step up their campaigns in an attempt to deter the British government from making concessions to nationalists.

Bishop Walsh's sentiments were echoed by the Church of Ireland Bishop, Samuel Poyntz, who said: 'Verbal artillery is almost as lethal as the real hard stuff that comes out of machine guns, because words can kill.' Saying that some people could be goaded into using guns and bombs, he appealed to politicians to be calm, cool and very careful about what they were saying.

The Social Democratic and Labour Party has called on the Royal Ulster Constabulary to consider whether recent Unionist speeches had breached incitement-to-hatred legislation. Dr Joe Hendron, an SDLP MP, has described some statements as 'bordering on the criminal' and 'winding up loyalist paramilitaries'.