Concern as North talks resume


THE first plenary session this year of the multi party talks on the future of the North will be convened at Stormont this morning in an atmosphere of deepening division and concern over recent IRA and loyalist paramilitary violence.

An unsuccessful booby trap car bomb attack on three off duty British soldiers in Ballynahinch, Co Down, early yesterday, is believed to mark a significant extension of IRA tactics in its spreading campaign of violence.

Only the vigilance of the soldiers, who checked their vehicle for devices before entering it, prevented fatalities. One of them, who was close to the bomb when it exploded, had a remarkable escape from serious injury.

The parties to the talks process are expected to resume consideration today of the unresolved issue of decommissioning paramilitary weapons. However, their efforts to reach an accord are increasingly seen as futile in the face of the IRA's unremitting campaign.

The frequency of attacks on security forces in recent weeks - attributed to but not always admitted by the IRA - and the tenor of political statements by Sinn Fein, have dampened speculation on a possible renewal of the IRA ceasefire in advance of a British election.

However, the prospect of a challenge to the participation of the loyalist fringe parties, the UDP and the PUP, in the talks appears to have diminished.

Although loyalist paramilitary (elements have been blamed for three recent booby trap bomb attacks, unionist parties such as the DUP and the UK Unionists have said they will not now follow up on threats to seek the exclusion of the loyalist fringe parties.

Instead, they will place the onus for censuring the loyalists on the British government, calling on the Northern Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, to reveal what evidence is available from security sources concerning the involvement of loyalist extremists in the attacks.

UDP and PUP leaders continue to argue that the ceasefire called by the CLMC, the Combined Loyalist Military Command, remains intact. Both governments and most of the parties to the Stormont talks have stressed the importance of keeping the loyalist politicians involved and encouraging continued CLMC restraint.

With the independent chairman, former Senator George Mitchell, due to resume his stewardship of the talks, speculation has begun to focus on the implications for the process of the impending Westminster election.

Both the British Prime Minister, Mr John Major, and the Northern Minister for Political Development, Mr Michael Ancram, have indicated the talks would be suspended for the duration of the election campaign. The various parties, however, assert strongly that the overall process must continue. The SDLP has also solidly backed the going process.