Ulster peace fears renewed

Colin Brown reports on growing anxiety for progress in peace process as ceasefire anniversary approaches
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The first anniversary of the IRA ceasefire at the end of August is forcing the pace of the behind-the-scenes talks between British ministers and the leaders of Sinn Fein.

Ministers fear that an inability to bring Sinn Fein to the negotiating table within 12 months of the ceasefire will look like the failure of the peace process.

There is also anxiety about how Sinn Fein and the IRA may mark the first anniversary.

Sinn Fein have so far resisted pressure from John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, to call off its campaign of street protests, which the Dublin government fears may lead to violence.

Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and Michael Ancram, the minister responsible for political development, are acutely aware of the significance of anniversaries in the Ulster calendar. They faced a security crisis over the annual Protestant marching season to mark the Battle of the Boyne on 12 July. The first rubber bullets since the ceasefire were fired by the Royal Ulster Constabulary at the Protestant protesters, which underlined the difficult balancing act the Northern Ireland ministers are performing in seeking to maintain some momentum to the peace process.

Ulster Unionist MPs and the handful of Tory MPs in the Unionist camp, now including Norman Lamont, the former Chancellor, have been quick to criticise any compromise smacking of a sell out over British demands that the Sinn Fein cannot be allowed into full cross-party talks on the future of Northern Ireland, until "substantial progress" has been made on decommissioning IRA weapons.

But ministers have been under growing pressure to do more to meet the demands of Sinn Fein about the release of prisoners. That issue came to a head over the release of Private Lee Clegg, the British soldier jailed for life for killing a joy rider.

The Irish foreign minister, Dick Spring, warned Sir Patrick at their last Anglo-Irish conference in London on 30 June in the most explicit terms that the release of Pte Clegg without a gesture towards the IRA prisoners would cause trouble. Pte Clegg's release three days later was the flashpoint for the most violent Republican street protests since the ceasefire began.

Sir Patrick has publicly maintained the British line that the prisoner issue will be dealt with by the due process of law. Privately, there have been nods and winks that progress will be made. There were well-placed reports that Sir Patrick would seek to amend the law in the next session of Parliament to make it easier for IRA and loyalist prisoners to be released on licence with up to 50 per cent remission.

The transfer of prisoners from British jails to Irish prisons is also being stepped up. Last week, the Irish parliament ratified the European Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons, which from November will allow prisoners sentenced in Britain to serve their sentences in the Republic.

And ministers responded to the "dirty protest" by three IRA prisoners at Whitemoor jail in Cambridgeshire, saying Liam Heffernan, Martin McMonagle, and Feilim O'Hadhmaill would be transferred to Northern Ireland prisons, if they ended their protests.

The private talks between Sir Patrick and Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, were intended to get behind the gesture politics to discover precisely what each side wanted, and what more they required for progress.

Northern Ireland ministers have become experts at language whose meaning is as slippery as a rainy alley. The surrender of IRA weapons has become "substantial progress on decommissioning". That means they do not have to give up their guns, and hand guns are largely excluded. They have to show they cannot use their heavy weaponry, particularly Semtex explosives, before they can join the parties are the conference table.

A commission of eminent people from other countries, such as Canada and Norway, is likely to be set up to oversee that process.

The United States administration is taking a keen interest, and a five- man Irish-US delegation met Mr Ancram last Friday to press for progress.

Mr Adams wanted to know from Sir Patrick when the release of prisoners would take place. Both have their own constituencies to think about. Both know the dangers, as 31 August draws closer.