Ulster talks resume amid air of pessimism and violence

Nationalist anger at IRA attacks is only good sign for authorities, reports David McKittrick
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The Independent Online
Political talks are due to resume in Belfast today amid pessimism about both their prospects for progress and the general security situation, with the IRA seemingly intent on escalating its violence.

A mortar attack on an RUC station in Fermanagh on Saturday caused no injuries but served to underline the continuing security threat. It was the latest in a series of IRA attacks which have resulted in increased security measures throughout Northern Ireland.

One heartening sign for the authorities, however, lies in the fact that the IRA in Belfast felt impelled at the weekend to warn members of the public against giving information to the police.

A statement said: "Over the past number of weeks the Belfast brigade of the IRA has become aware that a number of people in the Belfast area have compromised operations and placed the lives of volunteers in danger.

"These individuals have informed the RUC of the presence of volunteers in our area by phone, even after our volunteers made it clear to them who they represented. The IRA will take action against anyone placing the lives of our volunteers in danger in this way."

With a string of IRA attacks recently ending in failure, the statement seems to authenticate reports that the terrorist organisation is suffering from decreasing toleration of its violent activities. This in turn provides evidence to support the theory that even some republican sympathisers strongly disapprove of the violence.

While this in itself will certainly not be enough to turn the IRA away from terrorism, it constitutes an ominous warning to republican leaders that even in the ghettos they cannot depend on automatic support for their actions.

In Saturday's attack two mortars were fired from a van at an unmanned police station in the village of Tempo. One landed on the station roof and the other in a yard, but neither exploded. A number of people were in the vicinity at the time, including children taking part in music lessons.

A few hours earlier SDLP leader John Hume and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams had met for talks on the peace process. Sinn Fein said later that although the two parties had not agreed on an election pact the two leaders were determined to continue working together.

This morning the SDLP, together with eight other parties and representatives of the British and Irish governments, will meet at Stormont to reconvene political talks which had been adjourned over the Christmas period.

One of the first items of business is expected to be an attempt by the Rev Ian Paisley to have the fringe loyalist parties, the Ulster Democratic party and the Progressive Unionists, expelled from the talks.

Although the parties insist that the loyalist ceasefire is still in force, security sources say the illegal Ulster Defence Association, with which the UDP is associated, was responsible for two car boobytrap bomb attacks on republicans.

Mr Paisley has said that he intends to raise the issue with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, and will take it to the prime minister if he does not receive a satisfactory response.

Sir Patrick has studiously avoided blaming the loyalists for the two attacks, and it is clear that he and most of the other parties will be against any move to have them ejected from the talks.

The talks themselves, meanwhile, have generated much cynicism among the public, the widespread perception being that they have made little or no progress since they started last June.

They remain dogged by the arms decommissioning issue. The main nationalist and Unionist parties - the SDLP and David Trimble's Ulster Unionists - have for some time been involved in a series of meetings to find an agreed position on how the issue should be handled.

So far success has eluded them, and many believe the deadlock is unlikely to be broken this side of the general election. It is possible, however, that the chairman of the talks, the former US Senator George Mitchell, might act on his own initiative in an attempt to move things forward.

There is as yet no formal agreement on when and how the talks should be drawn to a close once the general election is called. Most parties are anxious to preserve the present format in the hope that new life can be breathed into the process after the election. They will thus probably try to find an arrangement for the talks to be suspended rather than wound up.