Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Pro-British Prisoners Could Hold Key to N. Ireland Peace Britain's N. Ireland Secretary Meets Today with Jailed Terrorists in a Bid to Rescue Faltering Peace Talks

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Pro-British Prisoners Could Hold Key to N. Ireland Peace Britain's N. Ireland Secretary Meets Today with Jailed Terrorists in a Bid to Rescue Faltering Peace Talks

Article excerpt

The prospects for peace in Northern Ireland may hang this weekend on the political views of 130 Protestant inmates convicted of crimes of violence, including murder.

Using what supporters and opponents alike are calling a desperate and unprecedented tactic, Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam is preparing to enter Belfast's top security Maze Prison today for talks with jailed Protestant loyalist terrorists. Ms. Mowlam has said she may also speak with Catholic republican prisoners during the visit.

Her decision to meet and make a personal appeal to the prisoners, believed key to keeping the threatened peace process alive, was welcomed by Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and the pro-British Ulster Unionists, the province's largest political party. It was also given conditional approval by small political parties taking part in the peace talks that represent the views of most of the Maze prison's loyalist inmates. Gary McMichael, leader of the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP), called Mowlam's planned visit "encouraging," adding, "The crisis still exists, it has not diminished. However, another door has been opened." The crisis erupted Dec. 27, when the head of a breakaway loyalist faction, Billy Wright, was murdered inside the Maze by jailed republican militants who do not recognize the IRA cease- fire. Wright's killing triggered revenge attacks that left two Catholics dead in recent weeks. The violence hit the peace process hard. On Tuesday, loyalist prisoners in the Maze held a vote and announced that they no longer had confidence in Mowlam or the peace process. The smaller loyalist parties represented at the peace talks have threatened to withdraw. John White, spokesman on prison matters for the UDP, called the situation "very grave." Mowlam concedes that her decision to talk to convicted terrorists is "a gamble." "This will worry a lot of people," she told reporters Wednesday. "It even worries my mother. But I am not going to negotiate with the prisoners. I am going to remind them that it is in the interests of all that the cease-fire prevails and that peace talks continue. …

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