SDLP offer hope for peace after Ulster violence

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Nationalist SDLP MPs, led by John Hume, last night told John Major that there was "no question" of the peace talks in Northern Ireland breaking down. But they laid the blame for the violence which has brought Ulster to crisis point firmly on the shoulders of the Orangemen.

They warned the Prime Minister that the RUC was "not acceptable in any big nationalist housing estates anywhere in Northern Ireland" and raised the reports in the Independent about ethnic cleansing. Joe Hendron, the SDLP MP for Belfast West, said the MPs said it was caused by "sectarian bigotry" which would not end until there was a peace settlement.

Irish ministers will travel to London for talks with British ministers today to underline the anger felt by the nationalist community after the decision to allow Orangemen to march by a nationalist estate at Drumcree.

The British ministers are ready to listen, but they are determined to reinforce the need for tougher security across the border, following the bombing of a hotel in Enniskillen using a car stolen in the South.

The two sides are expected to use the meeting to try to put the Northern Ireland peace process back on track after their angry exchanges over the outpouring of violence in Ulster.

Both sides recognise that relations have reached the lowest ebb since the peace process began, and they have no alternative but to try to repair the damage. Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, will meet Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign minister, with Nora Owen, the Irish justice minister, and Michael Ancram, the Northern Ireland minister.

Dublin and London will seek to accelerate the cross-party talks on to substantive issues but there is no prospect of Sinn Fein being allowed in until the IRA resumes its ceasefire.

Mr Hume and SDLP MPs accused the Ulster Unionists of breaking the foundation for the cross- party peace talks, the Mitchell principles, by becoming involved in violence, a charge denied by David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader. Mr Hendron said: "There is no question of the talks breaking down. We are boycotting the forum, which is a side issue, but the peace process is not dead. The peace is in tatters but it can be mended."

In Belfast, the future of Sir Hugh Annesley, the RUC Chief Constable, came under further attack yesterday when it emerged he will face a vote of no confidence from the Police Authority later this week.

Sean Neeson, a member of the authority, said: "I believe that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, regardless of which community they come from, have no confidence in the decisions that were taken over Drumcree and their aftermath."

According to a senior RUC source Sir Hugh has no intention of resigning despite the barrage of criticism. But he is also expected to come under fierce cross-examination by the Irish government at the Anglo-Irish conference.