By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — A woman whose parents were killed in the 1993 IRA bombing on the Shankill Road is to challenge a ruling by the Northern Ireland secretary of state, Mo Mowlam, that its cease-fire has not broken down.
Michelle Williamson’s parents were among 10 people killed in the bombing. Because the man convicted of the blast, Sean Kelly, will be released from jail next year, she has the legal right to challenge Mowlam’s ruling.
Meanwhile, the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein had their first meeting in weeks Tuesday at Stormont, a small sign that hope has not yet completely died of reviving the Good Friday peace agreement’s hopes for political stability.
In the courts, however, a different picture is emerging. The Ulster Unionist Party is backing Williamson’s case against Mowlam.
In Belfast High Court on Monday, she was granted a judicial review of Mowlam’s ruling, on the grounds that Mowlam had failed to abide by the law stipulating when prisoners are eligible for early release.
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The Northern Ireland Office said it would respond "vigorously" to any challenge because it "believed the secretary of state had acted properly within the law in making her determination" last month that the IRA cease-fire remained intact.
In a statement read to the court, Williamson said that following the killing of Charles Bennett and the illegal procurement of arms in the United States, both of which were traced to the IRA by RUC chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan, "no reasonable person could conclude that the organization was maintaining a complete cease-fire."
In two weeks, when the review is due to be heard, Mowlam could herself be called to justify her decision and the RUC chief constable could also be requested to give evidence on his view on the state of the IRA cease-fire.
The focus of the challenge will center on the Northern Ireland Sentences Act 1998, which provides for the early release of political prisoners under the terms of the agreement.
Williamson and the UUP are hoping to show that Mowlam violated the terms of the Act when she allowed prisoner releases to continue after she stated that the IRA cease-fire had been "breached" but had not "broken down."
The UUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson, who opposes the Good Friday agreement and wants Sinn Fein removed from the process, said: "I believe that this case is absolutely vital because it goes to the heart of the peace process by seeking to establish whether the IRA is committed to peaceful means."
"If they are not, then the benefits that accrue to them, including the early release of their prisoners, should no longer apply."
The move comes amid increasing unionist hostility to the agreement and as former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell attempts to break the impasse over decommissioning.
After the hearing, UUP leader David Trimble said this was merely the first step of what will be a fairly lengthy and complex process. He denied he was trying to wreck the agreement and said he was merely exposing Mowlam for "erring in law."
Williamson has previously expressed her anger at the agreement. Last December, she chained herself to the railings outside the Maze Prison when Kelly was given temporary parole.
Sinn Fein’s vice president, Pat Doherty, accused the Ulster Unionists of hypocrisy and of being determined to prevent change, whether through political or legal means.
When the judge announced he would grant leave for the judicial review, Trimble raised his hands in a sign of satisfaction. The judge said, however, that all Michelle Williamson had done so far was to show there was an arguable case, a modest hurdle he said and no forecast of the ultimate outcome.
Meanwhile, Mitchell is holding roundtable meetings involving two or more parties at a time this week.
"In these meetings, we will try to determine how best to accomplish the objectives for this review as set by the prime minister and the taoiseach," he said.
The agreement is deadlocked on the issue of the Ulster Unionists’ refusal to share power with Sinn Fein until the IRA commences decommissioning its weapons, and the IRA’s public declaration that it will not decommission in the immediate future.
Also, the deputy leader of the SDLP, Seamus Mallon, has issued a grim warning about the future in the North if Mitchell’s review of the Good Friday Agreement fails.
He said if the agreement crashes, there might be dangerous unrest with the two governments forced to make decisions between them with little input from the Northern parties.
People would feel betrayed and despairing if their politicians failed to implement the agreement, he said, and it could have "horrendous" implications, resulting in a political vacuum as the Irish and British governments took control.
On Friday, UUP deputy leader, John Taylor, said his party should have already withdrawn from the Mitchell review in order to "expose" Sinn Fein. Taylor says 75 percent of Protestants reject the accord.
At a party meeting, Taylor said there was no row within the UUP on policy, just a difference of opinion on tactics.
"For most of us it is quite clear that Sinn Fein/IRA are unsuitable to serve in government or in our police service while they refuse to decommission," he said.
"It would have been better tactics for the UUP to reach its own decision and to withdraw from the talks at Stormont three weeks ago, when the world press and media were highlighting the continuing violence of the IRA. A better opportunity to ensure that Sinn Fein was exposed may not arise."
Taylor also said this week that terrorists will subject Northern Ireland to a "bloody revolution" unless Chris Patten’s proposals for the reform of the RUC are dropped.
"The Patten report is a recipe for a real terrorist crisis in Northern Ireland," Taylor said. "It is the most irresponsible report I have ever read. The RUC is the protection against the spread of terrorism by the IRA into Britain and loyalist terrorism into the Republic, yet Patten wants to reduce the size of the RUC by 50 percent."
He condemned Patten’s plans to merge Special Branch and CID and allow Sinn Fein seats on a Policing Board and district partnerships. "Since Sinn Fein is inextricably linked to the IRA and the IRA remains in existence, there can be no place for Sinn Fein supporters in any policing board or district boards," he said.
He also condemned Mowlam for saying Sinn Féin was committed to exclusively peaceful means.
"She ought to be ashamed of herself," Taylor said. "She has been dishonest with the people of Northern Ireland and they know it."