Loyalist shift raises hopes of ceasefire

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The Independent Online
A distinct softening of their militant line by loyalist paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland last night raised hopes that they will eventually join the IRA in a ceasefire.

The Combined Loyalist Military Command, representing all the violent Protestant groups, set out a list of their concerns which, they declared, 'if suitably addressed could allow the loyalist groups to make a meaningful contribution towards peace'.

The past seven days have seen a complete absence of republican violence and only a few attacks by loyalists. Yesterday brought accusations of heavy-handed policing and harassment by the RUC in loyalist areas, but there are no signs of loyalists launching a high-level campaign aimed at breaking the republican ceasefire. With a general easing of tension in working-class Protestant areas, there seems little community pressure to stage a large-scale violent response.

But yesterday's statement made no mention of a suspension of loyalist violence and there is no guarantee that sporadic attacks have ended. This means the security forces are faced with republican demands to remove troops and police from nationalist areas, but also with demands that they protect such areas from loyalist attack.

The statement, which was couched in notably non-confrontational language, said the loyalists still needed to establish that the IRA ceasefire was permanent and that the republican INLA were following suit. They also wished to be convinced that no secret deals had been concocted between the Government and the IRA and that Northern Ireland's position within the UK was assured.

The loyalists also said they wanted to assess the implications of the framework document on which the British and Irish governments are working. Since this may not be issued for more than a month, it appears that any definitive announcement on a ceasefire may yet be some time away. Reports were circulating in Belfast last night that the question of whether the IRA's complete cessation of violence amounts to a permanent end to its campaign may be moving towards resolution. In the meantime, Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence, indicated there were no plans to cut troop levels until the question was cleared up. Speaking in Berlin, Mr Rifkind said the crucial requirement was to ensure the people were protected.

Asked whether security force personnel might eventually be cut, he replied: 'There may gradually become an argument.'

In Northern Ireland troops took to the streets at midnight wearing berets and regimental headgear rather than steel helmets in a sign of security relaxation. Some vehicle checkpoints have disappeared, while there are reports of fewer patrols in some areas.

But Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein described Mr Rifkind's comments as 'particularly unimaginative and arrogant'. He repeated republican calls for a complete demilitarisation.