The prospects for peace in Northern Ireland may hang this weekend on the political views of 130 Protestant inmates convicted of crimes of violence, including murder.
Using what supporters and opponents alike are calling a desperate and unprecedented tactic, Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam is preparing to enter Belfast's top security Maze Prison today for talks with jailed Protestant loyalist terrorists. Ms. Mowlam has said she may also speak with Catholic republican prisoners during the visit.
Her decision to meet and make a personal appeal to the prisoners, believed key to keeping the threatened peace process alive, was welcomed by Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and the pro-British Ulster Unionists, the province's largest political party.
It was also given conditional approval by small political parties taking part in the peace talks that represent the views of most of the Maze prison's loyalist inmates.
Gary McMichael, leader of the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP), called Mowlam's planned visit "encouraging," adding, "The crisis still exists, it has not diminished. However, another door has been opened."
The crisis erupted Dec. 27, when the head of a breakaway loyalist faction, Billy Wright, was murdered inside the Maze by jailed republican militants who do not recognize the IRA cease-fire.
Wright's killing triggered revenge attacks that left two Catholics dead in recent weeks. The violence hit the peace process hard. On Tuesday, loyalist prisoners in the Maze held a vote and announced that they no longer had confidence in Mowlam or the peace process. The smaller loyalist parties represented at the peace talks have threatened to withdraw.
John White, spokesman on prison matters for the UDP, called the situation "very grave."
Mowlam concedes that her decision to talk to convicted terrorists is "a gamble."
"This will worry a lot of people," she told reporters Wednesday. "It even worries my mother. But I am not going to negotiate with the prisoners. I am going to remind them that it is in the interests of all that the cease-fire prevails and that peace talks continue."
The spectacle of a secretary of state in the British government having to talk to convicted murderers in an attempt to promote peace is causing much argument.
Sir Brian Mawhinney, a senior opposition Conservative spokesman, said he was "disappointed" at Mowlam's decision. The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, said it was "mad."
But Brendan O'Leary, a specialist in Irish politics at the London School of Economics, considers the decision realistic, because the views of Maze prisoners are central to political progress toward peace.
"The Maze inmates exert a powerful pull on the peace negotiations," he says. "The prisoners can put great pressure on their communities outside. They have wide family connections beyond the jail, and having gone to prison for their cause, their opinions command wide respect."
Republican and loyalist prisoners enjoy freedom to organize themselves inside the jail and are allowed to make outside phone calls.
Sam McCrory, self-styled "officer commanding" of the Ulster Defense Association group in the Maze, used a mobile phone on Wednesday to complain to a newspaper that republican prisoners were receiving preferential treatment.
He said also that the British government had made too many concessions to the IRA at the peace talks.
"We don't want to play second fiddle to Sinn Fein or the IRA," he told a reporter. "We want to be treated equally. If the government gives concessions to republicans, it must give them to loyalists, too."
Mowlam's high-risk tactics have the full support of Prime Minister Tony Blair and his ministers, Downing Street officials said.
On Wednesday, Mowlam recalled that while in opposition she had entered the Maze and spoken to loyalist prisoners.
"I expect to meet a small group of their representatives, as I did then," she said.
The officials noted that the peace talks are due to resume in Belfast Monday and that therefore the secretary of state's decision to meet loyalist prisoners is critically timed.
But the same officials concede that if Mowlam's personal appeal is rebuffed, the prospects for progress in the peace talks is bleak indeed.