British official goes to prison, saves Irish talks Mowlam gets chiefs of Protestant militias to stay the course

January 10, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- To keep the peace, Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam went to jail yesterday.

She ventured into the concrete jungle of the notorious Maze prison -- home to more than 500 terrorists and killers -- and persuaded Protestant guerrillas in the prison to allow their political representatives to attend all-party talks due to resume Monday.

Mowlam gambled her political career and the future of an embattled community on an extraordinary jailhouse summit that brought Northern Ireland back from the brink of renewed violence.

British political leaders have talked with Northern Irish terrorists in the past. But never before has Britain's top minister on Northern Ireland held such high-profile, high-stakes meetings with terrorists inside a prison that is ringed with guard towers, barbed wire and scores of British soldiers.

"There was no metaphorical gun at my head," Mowlam said during a news conference inside a prison gymnasium.

The stakes couldn't have been greater, though.

Northern Ireland was on a knife's edge after last month's Maze murder of Protestant paramilitary William "King Rat" Wright. The murder set off a spree of tit-for-tat killings of Roman Catholics as the Protestant guerrillas threatened to undo the 3-year-old cease-fire in Northern Ireland.

The wave of killings threatened to torpedo the peace talks, involving eight political parties and chaired by former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell of Maine.

"We have looked into the abyss," said Gary McMichael, leader of the Ulster Democratic Party, which is linked to the main Protestant guerrilla group, the Ulster Defense Association.

It was McMichael, who announced that the guerrillas had voted to give their political leaders the green light to take part in the peace talks.

"We have broken our backs trying to work this crisis out and resolve it," McMichael said. "The message is to seize the opportunity now. Focus on the talks. Time is running out here. Unless we bring it to a head, make as clear an agreement as possible, this process is going to come to its knees."

But the greatest pressure of all was on Mowlam, who has a knack for talking tough and breaking protocol in a bid to keep belligerents at the bargaining table. She is also renowned for her physical toughness, battling a benign brain tumor even as she took control as Northern Ireland secretary in May.

Prior to the meeting, the London Daily Telegraph labeled the summit "bizarre, deeply offensive and naive." The Guardian published a cartoon of a prison tea party, with three hooded terrorists sitting with Mowlam who said, "More tea, Mad Dog?"

But there was no tea to be had when Mowlam met the inmate leaders.

Mowlam marched through the H-shaped cell blocks where jailed Protestant and Roman Catholic militiamen are segregated in separate wings, and talked face to face with some of Britain's most feared guerrillas.

Even though they remain behind bars, the prisoners retain influence to dictate events in Northern Ireland, where more than 3,200 people have been killed in more than 25 years of terrorist attacks.

Protestant guerrillas, called loyalists, favor continued links with Britain. Militants aligned with the Irish Republican Army are seeking to drive the British army out of Northern Ireland and unite the six counties with the southern Republic of Ireland.

Mowlam spent the bulk of her 2 1/2 -hour visit with the Protestant guerrilla groups threatening to pull their supporters -- the Ulster Defense Association and the Ulster Freedom Fighters -- from peace talks.

She also paid courtesy calls on the Ulster Volunteer Force, a Protestant group that supports the cease-fire, and the IRA.

She presented the prison leaders with a 15-point peace-building outline, making clear that prisoners wouldn't be considered for early release if their paramilitary organization was "actively engaged in terrorist activity."

Protestant guerrillas have grown resentful that none of them have been released while nine IRA prisoners were freed by Dublin.

"There were no threats issued," she said. "I didn't threaten them, and they didn't threaten me."

She acknowledged that her visit was sensitive, especially to those whose family members had been killed by some of the guerrillas she spoke with.

"Can I say right at the start, I'd like to apologize to those who have taken offense to what I have done," she said.

Still, she took the criticism and kept the peace process alive.

"Prison here is different," Mowlam said. "Everyone accepts that."

Built in the 1970s to house Northern Ireland's terrorists, the Maze gained notoriety with a 1981 hunger strike in which Bobby Sands and nine other Irish nationalist prisoners starved themselves to death. Over the years, 22 prison guards and a deputy prison governor have been murdered by the IRA.

Prisoners in the Maze now oversee their own cell blocks, wear whatever they like, have use of television sets, cellular telephones and computers, and have access to weights, pool tables and outdoor soccer fields.

Some prisoners also receive 10-day furloughs.

In recent weeks, the prisoners have grown touchy about their image. They used an unprecedented media day on Thursday to gripe to British reporters that the Maze was inaccurately portrayed as a holiday camp where sex, booze, and drugs are readily available.

"The wrong picture is being painted. We're political prisoners," said Sam McCrory, a heavily tattooed Protestant guerrilla leader serving 16 years for conspiracy to murder.

"If we were in control, I wouldn't be sitting here today talking to you," said Padraic Wilson, an IRA prisoner, jailed 24 years for conspiracy to murder. "I'd be out of here, away through those gates."

Pub Date: 1/10/98

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