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Murders Push Britain's New Minister Into an Old Stand: No Talk With IRA

Mowlam brings new energy and a fresh approach to a vexing issue

When terrorists murdered two police officers in the Northern Ireland town of Lurgan early June 16 Marjorie "Mo" Mowlam was preparing to unveil two fresh initiatives aimed at tackling the province's political and religious tensions.

"I want to make one last push to defuse the marching season," Britain's new Northern Ireland secretary had told an audience in Manchester, England, the previous weekend.

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Referring to turbulent standoffs between Catholics and Protestants when militants flaunt their sectarian beliefs in organized parades, she insisted: "There must be no repetition of last year's violence."

Dr. Mowlam's aides had said June 15 that she was about to propose a new formula to break the deadlock over the decommissioning of weapons in the hands of terrorist paramilitary groups - a major obstacle in the stalled peace process.

Instead, the next day, as Irish Republican Army gunmen claimed responsibility for killing the two officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Mowlam announced that all contacts with the Irish Republican Army and Sinn Fein, its political wing, were to end.

"These killings were an act of total cynicism and hypocrisy by the IRA," she declared. The British and Irish prime ministers condemned the murders and President Clinton expressed "outrage."

"I'm going to have to go back to the drawing board," Mowlam conceded.

A political scientist with a doctorate from the University of Iowa, Mowlam says she is "tough on violence and the causes of violence."

In her 14 years as a Labour Party member of Parliament from Redcar, a mainly working-class area in the north of England, she has acquired a reputation for incisive remarks and clear decisions.

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On May 2, when Prime Minister Tony Blair appointed Mowlam to take charge of government policy in Northern Ireland, she took immediate action.

The new Cabinet minister flew straight to Belfast and headed for the city center, where she waded into crowds of afternoon shoppers.

"The ball is in the IRA's court," she said. "I hope to bring sensitivity, directness, and openness to the peace process. But I won't tolerate terrorism." One shopper said afterward, "I think Mo is different from her predecessors. She really cares."

Government officials also detect a sudden and marked change of style in the government's approach to Northern Ireland.

Referring to Sir Patrick Mayhew, Mowlam's predecessor, an official in Britain's Northern Ireland Office said privately: "He wasn't exactly a man of the people."

Mowlam arrived at her post well-briefed about Northern Ireland and its problems. She had been Sir Patrick's Labour "shadow" for two years and had paid several visits to the province.

A Cabinet colleague describes her as having "the common touch," but adds, "She is no soft touch." Michael Portillo, a senior Cabinet minister in John Major's defeated Conservative government, says that in conversation she is "like a good-humored Gatling gun."

ON Northern Ireland, she not only hold the respect of her political opponents, she shares many of their views.

Britain's two main parties have long tried to maintain a bipartisan approach toward Irish terrorism.

SOON after taking office, Mowlam said, "My aim will be to bring peace to the province by restarting the peace process. But we cannot tolerate terrorist violence in any form. Nobody will be allowed to shoot or bomb their way to the peace table."

The words could have been spoken by Sir Patrick or any other spokesman of the former Conservative government.

In one key respect, however, Mowlam inherited a changed situation. In the May 1 election, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and his deputy, Martin McGuinness, won election to the British Parliament.

Although they will not take their seats because they refuse to swear allegiance to the British queen, they can claim increased support from Northern Ireland voters.

Sinn Fein's confidence was boosted earlier this month when one of its candidates won a seat in the Irish Parliament in Dublin.

None of this appears to have deflected Mowlam. On the issue of parades in the July and August the "marching season," she called separate meetings with leaders of the Protestant Orange Order and residents of mainly Catholic areas.

Protestants say they should be allowed to march in the full regalia of their lodges through or near Catholic districts. But Catholics claim such parades are provocative and intended to humiliate them.

Mowlam hoped that the discussions would lead to dialogue between the communities and help to avert the kind of clashes that occurred in Drumcree and other Northern Ireland towns last year.

The June 16 murders represent a blow to her hopes. They were committed in Lurgan, a town that has suffered from IRA attacks before and where the issue of Protestant marches through Catholic districts is especially sensitive.

A Northern Ireland police officer noted June 17 that the murders "had the trademark of classic IRA killings," He said the terrorists had stalked their victims from behind and shot them at point-blank range in their heads.

The problem Mowlam faces is that Mr. Adams appears either to be unable or unwilling to exercise influence over IRA gunmen.

Mr. McGuinness said June 17 that Sinn Fein "holds no guns" and called for "redoubled efforts" to restart the peace process.

But Mowlam was no doubt speaking for Prime Minister Blair when she said June 16, "There can be no case for maintaining a dialogue with Sinn Fein so long as murders and other violent acts are committed by the IRA."

In obvious exasperation, she said: "At a time when Northern Ireland is holding its breath and hoping for peace, those intent on evil have struck. The government resolutely condemns this atrocity but will not be intimidated into weakening our resolution to bring about a peaceful Northern Ireland in which all can share."

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