ALAN MURRAY FOREIGN Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern paid an unannounced visit to Belfast last week to discuss the deteriorating security situation in the north, the Sunday Independent has learned.
Mr Ahern travelled north on Thursday to meet with SDLP and Sinn Fein politicians and also held informal discussions with some members of the Unionist community in West Belfast.
Earlier in the day President Mary McAleese cancelled a planned visit to the Shankill area to meet schoolchildren because of "security fears".
Minister Ahern's visit was requested by SDLP representatives who have become increasingly alarmed at the continuing murder campaign by the Ulster Volunteer Force and the growth in sectarian attacks against Catholic churches, schools and homes.
His visit underlines the gravity of the current dangerous situation in the North arising out of the loyalist feud between the UVF and the Loyalist Volunteer Force and ongoing sectarian tensions, particularly in Co Antrim, where many Catholic homes have been attacked in Ballymena and Ahohill.
Northern Secretary Peter Hain is coming under heavy pressure to declare the UVF's ceasefire invalid because of the four murders and numerous other attempted murders and other terrorist incidents committed by the paramilitary organisation since the beginning of July.
Officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs spoke to Unionists in West Belfast earlier last week to prepare a brief for the Minister before Thursday's visit. It's understood there is considerable concern within Iveagh House that the current unstable situation within loyalism could have major repercussions for the Nationalist community in the North and for the prospects of political progress after the IRA carries out a major act of weapons decommissioning in the coming weeks.
Mr Ahern is understood to have discussed the implications of loyalist unrest with Unionists during his trip north on Thursday.
SDLP Deputy Leader Alasdair McDonnell said his party had requested the meeting with Mr Ahern because of concerns over the activities of Loyalist paramilitaries. "We had a very useful meeting with Dermot Ahern and his senior staff . . . about the current wave of loyalist violence and intimidation," he said.
"We discussed the UVF onslaught on the LVF and the implications this has for destabilising the whole community. We made it clear to him that we felt that continuing the pretence that the UVF was observing some sort of ceasefire was farcical and if credibility was to be established, Peter Hain must specify the UVF's ceasefire as bogus."
Friday's shootings in mid-Ulster have dispelled hopes that the bitter feud between the UVF and the LVF was nearing truce or resolution following a relatively incident free fortnight.
But senior figures in both organisations have indicated in recent days that there is no established channel of communication between the two terrorist groups and that a situation to bring about mediation and a halt to the conflict is still a long way off.