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Pro-Brit Group Turns Against Talks

January 7, 1998

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ The imprisoned leaders of Northern Ireland’s largest pro-British paramilitary group insisted Tuesday they can no longer support peace talks _ and, by implication, threatened more violence.

The move came as a string of killings already threatens the stalled talks on Northern Ireland’s political future. It was also a rebuff to the pro-British politicians who sought the prisoners’ support for continuing negotiations.

David Trimble, head of the pro-British Ulster Unionists, took the unusual step of entering the high-security Maze prison outside Belfast on Tuesday to try to convince Ulster Defense Association members inside not to resume a campaign of terror against Catholics.

But the UDA prisoners had already rejected the arguments of a delegation from their own legal political party, the Ulster Democrats.

``We were unable to convince the prisoners to give us their support to participate in the talks process. We’re afraid that may have severe consequences,″ Ulster Democrats negotiator John White told reporters outside the prison.

White _ who spent 18 years in prison for the 1972 knife slaying of a Catholic politician and his Protestant girlfriend _ said the prisoners’ verdict would be weighed ``heavily″ by UDA commanders in Belfast.

``Obviously the situation is worsening,″ said Ulster Democrats leader Gary McMichael.

McMichael told the prisoners that the talks on Northern Ireland, which resume Monday, would soon face a critical juncture, particularly for their enemy, the IRA-allied Sinn Fein party. He argued that the negotiators from the eight participating parties in the talks would be able to chart a compromise future for Northern Ireland that would keep the predominantly Protestant province still firmly tied to Britain.

``The IRA haven’t had to face the serious questions ... to come to terms with a democratic settlement,″ McMichael said.

Although the imprisoned militants insisted that their decision to oppose the talks didn’t mean an end to their cease-fire, the truce was called in October 1994 to facilitate the talks.

Like the Catholic-based Irish Republican Army, both pro-British gangs expected the talks would produce early paroles for their hundreds of imprisoned members. The British government in 1995 cut the sentences for all paramilitary prisoners _ but the move didn’t affect prisoners with life sentences and fell far short of their expectations.

The IRA abandoned its 1994 cease-fire in February 1996, then stopped shooting and bombing again in July to permit Sinn Fein to join the talks.

Since then, the British government has transferred several IRA prisoners from jails in England to Ireland, a long-standing Sinn Fein demand. The Irish government freed nine IRA prisoners on Dec. 19.

Meanwhile, the UDA and UVF prisoners remain jailed in Northern Ireland.

White said _ despite holding a cease-fire longer and being involved in the negotiations from the start in June 1996 _ pro-British Protestants were getting less in return.

``We have nothing to show whatsoever for loyalist prisoners, while republican prisoners have been gaining concession after concession,″ he said.

While the UDA and UVF have officially maintained their cease-fire, a dissident Protestant group, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, emerged last year and has been blamed for killing several Catholic civilians.

The current crisis was triggered Dec. 27 when the Irish National Liberation Army, an IRA splinter gang also opposed to the peace talks, assassinated Billy Wright, the commander of the Loyalist Volunteer Force, inside the Maze prison.

The Loyalist Volunteer Force retaliated by killing two men and wounding eight other people in a pair of attacks.

Between them, the UDA and the UVF have killed about 900 people, mostly Catholic civilians. The IRA has killed about 1,800 people since 1970.

Late Tuesday, two gunmen shot and injured a man in a pub in south Belfast. Police said it did not appear to be a sectarian attack, and their investigation centered on a suspected link to drug dealing.

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