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Monday, February 23, 1998 Published at 20:44 GMT


Bomb 'designed to end talks'
image: [ Firefighters tackle the aftermath of the blast ]
Firefighters tackle the aftermath of the blast

Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam: "some groups want to destroy the peace process".
A car bomb that exploded and caused thousands of pounds of damage to Portadown in Northern Ireland has been condemned by politicians involved in the peace talks.

The UK Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, branded the bombing as "senseless and wicked" and said it was a "desperate bid by ruthless people to de-stabilise Northern Ireland and undermine confidence in the peace process".

Other politicians at the talks, which had resumed at Stormont in Belfast for less than two hours when the bomb exploded, united in condemning the attack.

But unionists also blamed the IRA and linked the blast to Sinn Fein's temporary suspension from the talks. Representatives of loyalist groups also warned that it could threaten their ceasefire.

However, there was no claim of responsibility for the bomb which went off just before midday (GMT) in the town centre, completely demolishing two buildings and damaging scores more.

Windows in buildings up to 300 yards away were shattered. A series of coded telephone warnings were received and the area had been evacuated by the time the bomb exploded.

Portadown town centre was previously bombed in 1993.

Many politicians left the talks about lunchtime to travel to the town to view the damage and to speak to residents.

[ image: Damaged cars show the force of the blast]
Damaged cars show the force of the blast
Ms Mowlam said it was obviously too early to say who was responsible, but said: "The men of violence may destroy property but these cowardly terror tactics will not deflect us from seeking an agreed way forward in the talks process."

She said that there were many groups opposed to the peace process who were out to destroy it.

'We must keep going'

"We have to make sure that we are determined and keep going. What is important is to keep going and don't let them defeat us - to deter us from where we want to be, which is a settlement and accommodation between the parties," she said.

Ms Mowlam stressed that she had faith in Ronnie Flanagan, the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

She said it was not easy given the random nature of the attacks but he was doing a good job. "I believe he manages the security threat of the nature we are facing as well as can be expected."

Ms Mowlam broke off from discussion in the talks for a meeting with security advisers about the bombing.

Both the Chief Constable and Security Minister Adam Ingram travelled to Portadown to inspect the damage and discuss the implications of the latest attack.

[ image: David Trimble:
David Trimble: "No way back for Sinn Fein"
David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, left the talks at lunchtime to travel to Portadown, which is in his constituency.

Speaking yards from where the bomb went off, he said: "I have no doubt that this is the work of the IRA. We are seeing Sinn Fein-IRA venting its spleen because it has been caught out."

Deputy leader of the Democratic Unionists, Peter Robinson, said: "This bears all the hallmarks of the IRA. It has been carried out strategically to their advantage.

"I don't believe there can ever be a place at the negotiating table for the people who did this."

Billy Hutchinson, a leading member of the Progressive Unionist Party which speaks for the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, warned that the loyalist ceasefire was close to collapse.

Blaming the IRA for the attack he said: "The loyalist ceasefire is under threat if these attacks continue. Political dialogue is not working. Time is running out."

[ image: Brid Rodgers:
Brid Rodgers: "Attempt to destroy hopes"
A member of the mainly nationalist SDLP's talks' team, Brid Rodgers, who comes from Portadown, blamed republican extremists for the bombing.

"Very clearly, it is a deliberate and ruthless attempt to destroy the hopes of the people of Northern Ireland at this very tense time by attacking a town where the sectarian tensions are probably at their very highest."

Sinn Fein insisted that they believed the IRA ceasefire remained and called on those behind the Portadown and Moira bombings to publicly acknowledge responsibility.

Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, said the bomb was unhelpful but would not derail the talks.

The UK Government has hinted that it believes the Moira bomb was the work of a republican splinter group.

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