LONDON -- Northern Ireland's sputtering peace process was dealt another blow yesterday when a political party with links to an outlawed band of Protestant gunmen walked out of all-party talks designed to end decades of violence.
But the blow was not considered fatal. "There are no prospects whatsoever of the talks collapsing," said Irish Foreign Minister David Andrews.
The Ulster Democratic Party left the talks before it was shoved out, as tempers continued to flare over a post-Christmas wave of bloodshed in Northern Ireland that has left 10 men dead, including eight Roman Catholics.
"We are not walking away from the process," UDP leader Gary McMichael said. "We want back into the negotiations, with the same power as all the other parties, as quickly as possible."
But UDP leaders have apparently been unable to control the paramilitary they are connected with, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, which has claimed responsibility for three sectarian killings.
McMichael warned that his party's pullout would "fuel instability" in an already tense Northern Ireland. He pledged to do all he could to help maintain the Protestant paramilitary cease-fire of October, 1994.
"We actively oppose the use of violence for political purposes, regardless of where it emanates," McMichael said.
Yet he was unwilling to have his party "humiliated" by others engaged in the peace process, as talks convened for three days at London's Lancaster House.
The British and Irish governments reluctantly agreed that the UDP had to go -- at least for now.
But they left open the possibility that the party could return to the bargaining table in a few weeks if the gunmen adhere to a cease-fire.
Northern Ireland's leading Catholic politician also held out hopes the UDP could return.
"If there is a cease-fire that is clearly genuine and unequivocal, we agree that the door should be left open to them to return to the process," said John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party.
But Gerry Adams, leader of the Irish Republican Army's political wing, Sinn Fein, said that "the crisis has not been defused."
The British and Irish governments -- and local political parties -- are trying to carve out a settlement by May between Northern Ireland's majority Protestants, who mainly favor staying part of Great Britain, and minority Catholics, many of whom seek a united Ireland.
More than 3,200 people have died in nearly 30 years of terrorist troubles.
"I remain convinced that agreement can be reached by then or even possibly before then, once there is a determination by the participants to move to that final stage," said the talks' chairman, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.
Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam also vowed to keep the talks process alive.
"Those of us who remain at the talks must now focus on the important business before us," she said. "That is to make progress toward an agreement. We have a great deal of work to do and we must now get on with it."
Pub Date: 1/27/98