Britain’s top official for Northern Ireland walked into a maximum-security prison Friday to make a face-to-face appeal for peace to men who had murdered Catholics. In return for the unprecedented move, Protestant militants promised to remain in peace talks.
Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam was lambasted by some politicians and victims of the sectarian violence for the visit. Still, she insisted that “talking is the only way forward” toward peace in the troubled province.
Mowlam spent nearly 3-1/2 hours in Maze prison, sitting down with members of the outlawed Ulster Defense Association, the largest pro-British paramilitary group.
The meeting took place in one of the prison’s H-shaped cell blocks, where the walls are decorated with elaborate militant murals. One says “Satan’s assassins” with the picture of headstones in a graveyard. Another has a masked UDA member wielding a rocket launcher beside a list of places where Catholics have been killed.
By going inside the Maze, Mowlam won a reprieve for talks on the political future of Northern Ireland and dampened the threat that Protestant and Catholic cease-fires - which enabled the talks to occur in the first place - would break down.
The political talks, which include negotiators for the pro-British Protestant paramilitary groups and for Sinn Fein, political ally of the rival Catholic-based Irish Republican Army, can now resume as scheduled on Monday.
But the outlook still remains bleak for the negotiations, which are supposed to find agreement by May on a new way of governing this troubled British province.