Loyalists under pressure to control Belfast violence

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Efforts were under way yesterday to persuade loyalist paramilitary groups to back away from the violence which has recently hit a number of areas across Belfast.

Efforts were under way yesterday to persuade loyalist paramilitary groups to back away from the violence which has recently hit a number of areas across Belfast.

The hope is that the main loyalist organisations, the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association, might agree to a "no first strike" policy at the city's numerous flashpoints. Behind the scenes, talks have been going on for some time in the hope of reducing violence before next month's arrival of the loyalist marching season brings its traditional heightening of tensions.

The talks centre on the Loyalist Commission, a loose umbrella grouping which includes representatives of the paramilitary groups as well as a number of politicians and Protestant clergymen. The Sinn Fein minister Martin McGuinness welcomed the talks and said he applauded attempts by political representatives to stop loyalist attacks.

The continuing violence in north Belfast has recently spread to Short Strand in the east of the city, while there have also been lesser outbreaks in the south. The UVF, which had been comparatively quiet in recent months, has raised its violent profile in the south and east, particularly around the Catholic Short Strand area.

While any declaration to emerge from the talks would be regarded as worthwhile, it would be received with much scepticism, given that some loyalist groups have often broken their word. Nonetheless, almost any potentially positive step would be welcomed in a city which has seen a reduction in the death rate but persistent street disturbances.

The moves come against the umpromising background of numerous night-time attacks, most of them the work of loyalist organisations and individuals. Unusually, the target of one loyalist attack was a Protestant minister, the Reverend Earl Storey, a Church of Ireland rector. Several windows at his home at Glenavy near Belfast, and his car windscreen, were broken.

Mr Storey said he believed he had been targeted because he had recently published a book saying his church should break its ties with loyalist marchers. He added: "It was trying to look in a reasoned way and taking away the passions on the issue of the Church of Ireland and the Orange Order."

A smoke canister was thrown through the window of the home of an elderly Catholic priest not far from Mr Storey's house. In another incident the Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, home of Stewart Dickson, a councillor representing the moderate Alliance party, was damaged by a group of eight masked loyalists who objected to his attempts to have loyalist murals removed.

In Co Down, loyalists carried out a "punishment attack" on a boy, aged 15, on Wednesday, leaving him with a broken leg and suspected broken arm.

Chief Superintendent Judith Gillespie said the boy could be scarred for life, adding: "This was a child, regardless of whether or not he has been involved in any crime. That is not the issue. This is child abuse. He is very upset and traumatised by this experience. While the physical scars may heal, I'm sure he will have long-lasting psychological scars."