Postal staff resume work after death threat is withdrawn

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The Independent Online

Northern Ireland postal workers will return to work after loyalist statements which appeared to retract threats made against them and Catholic teachers.

However, other workers are preparing for protest rallies at lunchtime tomorrow. Unions have also called for a general half-day stoppage.

Postal deliveries were suspended after the killing of a postman by the Ulster Defence Association on the outskirts of north Belfast on Sunday. The security forces believe that an accompanying threat against all postal staff, as well as Catholic teachers, was probably not genuine. The UDA dissociated itself from the threats yesterday, leading to hopes that either they were not made with the organisation's approval or that the hostile reaction had caused the retraction.

In a piece of face-saving paramilitary pantomime, the UDA used one of its cover names, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, to issue a statement denouncing the group which issued the threat, the Red Hand Defenders. The Red Hand Defenders announced shortly afterwards that they were disbanding. But the organisation does not exist, simply being another UDA cover name.

Although this is the probable explanation, the fact that lives are at stake means the authorities, and the workers involved, cannot take this at face value. Precautions will remain in place.

Peter Hamill, the branch secretary of the Communication Workers Union, called for an unequivocal statement from the people who issued the threat that it had been withdrawn. Speaking after the meeting which decided on a return to work, he said: "This was a meeting where a lot of people got rid of their anger. They are still very unhappy and we might need to get independent clarification and assurances that this threat has been lifted."

Earlier, union officials had met Assistant Chief Constable Alan McQuillan, who said he had told them he was "90 per cent sure" the threat was not genuine. He said the threat did not come from those who killed the postman. But he added: "There is always that 10 per cent – that is why we have had such an extensive operation across north Belfast in the last few days ... I said quite openly to them that this is Northern Ireland and nobody can give you any guarantees."

Uncertainty surrounds what will happen tomorrow with the half-day stoppage called by trade unions.

The National Association of Head Teachers said the Department of Education, which is headed by Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, had abdicated responsibility by issuing guidelines leaving closure decisions to school principals.

The union said it was unclear how many teachers would stop work. The head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Gerry Loughran, said public services had to be maintained and he could not endorse the stoppage.