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Ulster awaits backlash after IRA guns down loyalist

THE IRA's assassination yesterday of a leading loyalist pushed up the sectarian temperature in Northern Ireland and provoked fears of violent retaliation as thousands of Protestants take to the streets today for annual parades.

An IRA gunman shot dead Ray Smallwoods, 44, who was associated with the illegal Ulster Defence Association, as he walked to his car outside his home in Lisburn, Co Antrim. He was hit by three blasts from a shotgun. The UDA said, in an ominous statement after the shooting, that the IRA would bear the responsibility for any retaliation carried out.

An IRA group of four men and a woman held an elderly couple - who are both in poor health - prisoners over night in their home before emerging at 9am yesterday to shoot Mr Smallwoods as he left his house near by.

The killing followed a gun attack on the home of the Rev William McCrea, the Democratic Unionist Party MP for mid-Ulster, late on Sunday night. No one was injured in that incident, when some 40 shots were fired into the MP's home at Magherafelt, Co Londonderry.

Today, 12 July, is the high point of the Protestant marching season, when tens of thousands of Orangemen parade throughout Northern Ireland. RUC Superintendent Bill Scott said there was great concern about revenge attacks. 'We will be doing our utmost tonight and in the succeeding days to thwart any further attacks,' he said.

Even before yesterday's murder, security forces were concerned about retaliation following the weekend death of a leading Ulster Volunteer Force man, Trevor King, who died in hospital almost a month after being shot by the republican INLA.

Mr Smallwoods had served half of a 15-year prison sentence for his own part in an attempted political assassination. He was one of a UDA group that shot and almost killed Bernadette McAliskey, the one-time nationalist MP for mid-Ulster, in 1980. After his release from jail he maintained his loyalist links. The UDA yesterday denied an IRA claim that he was a member of the organisation's Inner Council, but he is believed to have been one of the group's leading political advisers. He was a prominent member of a small political grouping, the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP), and in recent years frequently appeared on television commenting on and explaining loyalist paramilitary moves. Married with three teenage sons, he was an unsuccessful candidate in recent council elections.

Observers were yesterday puzzling over how such a provocative killing could conceivably fit into the republican movement's professed commitment to a peace process.

The IRA has killed five members of the UDP in recent years. One leading UDP figure, Gary McMichael, whose father was killed by the IRA four years ago, said Mr Smallwoods had paid his debt to society by his years in prison and was dedicated to finding a way out of the conflict. He added: 'There's going to a lot of angry people out there. I think it's going to be difficult to control.'

Ken Kerr, the UDP organiser in Londonderry and a close colleague of Mr Smallwoods, said: 'If I called for no retaliation, as sure as night turns to day, there is sombody who is going to retaliate and no matter what I say nothing will change that.'

Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, warned the IRA: 'However brutal you are and however disgusting your behaviour, every time you do something like this it simply confirms the opposition of all the decent people of Ulster to what you are trying to do.'

Two men are in custody for questioning about the attack on the home of Mr McCrea. Some of the bullets, which were fired from a passing car, pierced the toughened security windows. Eleven people were in the house at the time, but Mr McCrea was absent, having been delayed after a church service.

He said the hand of God had delayed him, adding that if he had arrived home at his normal time the gunmen would have seen him: 'I would have been absolutely riddled,' he said.

A Belfast High Court judge yesterday blocked a coroner's attempt to gain access to the secret Stalker report into six fatal shootings by the RUC in 1982. He cited national security and added that the documents were not relevant to the coroner's inquiry.

(Photograph omitted)