End of loyalist ceasefire feared after car-bombing in Belfast

 

THE Northern peace process was plunged into a new crisis yesterday as a bomb attack injured a leading republican in north Belfast and almost certainly signalled the end of the 26 month loyalist paramilitary ceasefire.

Mr Eddie Copeland, believed to be in his late 20s, received severe leg injuries when a bomb detonated under his car as he started the vehicle outside his mother's house in Ladbrook Drive in the mainly Catholic Ardoyne area.

Mr Copdand's condition in hospital last night was described as stable.

Although no organisation had last night claimed responsibility for the attack, it was seen as a loyalist reprisal for Friday night's IRA gun attack on two plainclothes RUC officers guarding the DUP secretary, Mr Nigel Dodds, as he visited his gravely ill son in the Royal Children's Hospital in Belfast.

A man arrested by the RUC at the weekend was released last night after being questioned in connection with the hospital attack, which drew widespread condemnation.

The Taoiseach, Mr Bruton, said the violence should make those in evolved in both weekend attacks pause. Violence could so easily spiral out of control. Condemning the bomb attack on Mr Copeland he said those who knew the perpetrators of this act had a responsibility to inform the police immediately.

The Fianna Fail leader, Mr Bertie Ahern, condemned all acts of violence, especially at this time of year when people should be engaged in a thrust for peace.

The Tanaiste, Mr Spring, said last night he was "very apprehensive about the situation in the North" and was particularly concerned about tit for tat incidents. He was speaking at a tree lighting ceremony in Killarney, Co Kerry.

Fears expressed by loyalist political spokesmen that their appeals for restraint by their paramilitary associates might be ignored appeared to be borne out when the murder attempt on Mr Copeland took place shortly after midday yesterday.

It was seen as certain that the multi-party talks process at Stormont, now adjourned for Christmas, will be thrown into turmoil when it reconvenes in January.

There are likely to be demands for the expulsion of the loyalist fringe parties, the Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party, from the talks creating a dilemma in particular for the independent chairman, the former US senator, Mr George Mitchell.

The PUP spokesman, Mr David Ervine, said in a BBC interview yesterday "I would make myself very clear we are not the Protestant Sinn Fein, and if loyalism has returned to war we won't be representing them at talks."

Mr Ervine said the Ardoyne attack was "potentially disastrous". It was potentially the beginning of the spiral back into all out conflict.

The UDP spokesman, Mr David Adams, said he had not been surprised at the bomb attack. "Loyalists have withstood provocation since Canary Wharf in February of this year, and with that provocation continuing, it seemed to me only a matter of time before there was some sort of response," he said.

The UUP security spokesman, Mr Ken Maginnis, said that if both loyalists and republicans had now decided to resume violence the talks process could collapse.

The SDLP MP for West Belfast, Dr Joe Hendron, said that constitutional nationalism was now demanding that the IRA call an immediate ceasefire. "The onus is on them to call a credible cessation of violence which will allow us all to move into a process of inclusive negotiations," he said.

The Alliance leader, Lord Alderdice, said people would be angry and frightened about what the bombing might mean over the next couple of months.

The Sinn Fein president, Mr Gerry Adams, appealed for calm and urged nationalists and republicans to exercise "the greatest vigilance at this time". Earlier yesterday Mr Adams had called on the British Prime Minister, Mr Major, to initiate dialogue directly with Sinn Fein.

Mr Ian Paisley jnr of the Democratic Unionist Party said that if the attack turned out to be a backlash from loyalist paramilitaries he would condemn it.

An IRSP spokesman expressed grave concern at the Ardoyne attack and warned that it could mark the start of a resumption of inter communal violence, on a level hitherto unseen.

Father Sean McManus, president of the Irish National Caucus condemned both weekend attacks and said. "We are at an extremely dangerous impasse. Only an IRA ceasefire can transform the situation."

The blast came as hundreds of people concluded a peace rally outside the City Hall in Belfast. Tension had increased following Friday's IRA attack. Security force patrols were stepped up and the "Peace Line" gates were closed after dark in West Belfast.

Pending any admission of responsibility, it was unclear whether the attack was a once off reprisal sending a warning to the IRA, or ban indication that a full scale loyalist onslaught was in store.