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Saturday, January 10, 1998 Published at 00:20 GMT


High-risk Maze meeting boosts Ulster peace hopes
image: [ Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam talks to Maze Governor Martin Mogg ]
Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam talks to Maze Governor Martin Mogg

The Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, has given the peace process some breathing space by meeting convicted terrorists, face to face, in Belfast's Maze prison.

The BBC's Ireland correspondent Denis Murray explains why Mo Mowlam's gamble paid off (2'30")
Afterwards, the loyalist Ulster Freedom Fighters voted to send their political allies back to the multi-party talks at Stormont - reversing a decision that threatened to derail peace efforts.

The announcement was a triumph for the Secretary of State who risked much political capital to prevent a collapse of the negotiations on the province's future.

Ministers in Belfast, London and Dublin believe it could boost the peace process when talks resume on Monday.

[ image: Belfast's top-security Maze jail houses loyalist and republican prisoners]
Belfast's top-security Maze jail houses loyalist and republican prisoners
The Progressive Unionist Party, the political wing of the UVF, meets on Sunday to decide its future but the UFF decision, welcomed by Dr Mowlam, will intensify pressure on a return to talks.

Michael Stone and four associates - all convicted terrorists serving long sentences - met Dr Mowlam in a governor's office for more than an hour. They listened as she called on them to change their minds after withdrawing their support for the dialogue.

[ image: UFF leader John Adair has met Mo Mowlam before]
UFF leader John Adair has met Mo Mowlam before
Later Dr Mowlam said: "The meeting I had with them was useful. It is now for the prisoners to think about it and I hope they will reach the decision to support the talks on Monday.

Dr Mowlam tells reporters why it is so vital for loyalists to rejoin the peace talks
Dr Mowlam said she had presented a 14-point paper to the prisoners and gone through it in detail with them.

But she denied the men were holding a "metaphorical gun" to her head.

[ image: This is the second time Michael Stone has met Dr Mowlam]
This is the second time Michael Stone has met Dr Mowlam
She added: "I reminded the prisoners the only way their concerns can be addressed is through their representatives at the talks."

The Secretary of State held out the possibility of early prisoner releases being considered when progress was achieved on the way to a political settlement. But she said she gave no guarantees.

Instead Dr Mowlam told them: "Nobody is going to get anything unless we have a talks process. Talks are the only way forward."

"Symbolic recognition"

Gary McMichael, of the Ulster Democratic Party, the political wing of the UFF and Ulster Defence Association, confirmed Dr Mowlam's high-risk move had a powerful impact on some of the men. His team, he added, would be back at Stormont.

The prisoners withdrew support for the talks because of loyalist bitterness over the government's handling of the process which, they claimed, was biased towards republicans.

But after consultations with their leaders after the Maze meeting, the 130 men voted to back the process despite doubts about its direction.

"Democratic politics undermined"

The prisoners said they were now looking for swift action by the government to restore confidence within the unionist community.

After her meeting with the UFF and later with IRA and UVF leaders, Dr Mowlam said she wanted to "apologise" to victims' relatives who objected to the visit. But there was support from families who also suffered.

However, Lord Alderdice, leader of the non-sectarian Alliance Party repeated his criticism of her decision that democratic politics had been undermined.

The Rev. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party also warned that she had set a precedent. It asked how long it would be before she was "summoned to massage a few more egos and offer a few more concessions".


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