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Northern Ireland Time Line

  IRA's Political Arm Renounces Violence

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 10 1997; Page A15

In another step in the long search for peace in Northern Ireland, the leaders of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the outlawed Irish Republican Army, formally renounced violence today and committed themselves to "exclusively peaceful means" to end a conflict that has raged for decades.

Together with a cease-fire renewed by the IRA on July 20, the move opens the way for Sinn Fein to join multi-party talks on the future of Northern Ireland scheduled to begin in Belfast Monday. But the outlook for the formal opening of the talks remains uncertain.

There were many empty seats around the negotiating table today, and the largest of the pro-British unionist parties, which generally represent the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland, has not yet decided if it will participate, directly or indirectly, because of Sinn Fein's presence.

The unionist parties say they regard Sinn Fein's motives with deep suspicion. Several already have said they will boycott the talks, while the leaders of the Ulster Unionist Party, the largest and most important, will confer at length before announcing their decision. They will meet Saturday to set their strategy.

The pledge by Sinn Fein was a prerequisite to its participation in the peace talks, which are chaired by former U.S. Senate majority leader George Mitchell. Ten days ago, Sinn Fein was invited into the all-party talks after the new Labor Party government of Prime Minister Tony Blair concluded that the cease-fire announced by the IRA in July was genuine. The talks include nine other parties in Northern Ireland that represent the Protestant majority and the Roman Catholic minority, plus the British and Irish governments. Blair is gambling that he can break the long stalemate in the talks.

Led by their president, Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein representatives signed on today to the six so-called "Mitchell Principles," which were developed by the former Senate leader in a 1996 report that helped establish the framework for negotiations now entering a crucial stage.

"We're pleased that Sinn Fein has now joined nine other political parties in Northern Ireland and the two governments in affirming not just their present commitment to [the principles], but their willingness to adhere to them in the future," Mitchell said in a telephone interview from Belfast. "We think it's a significant step in removing the use or threat of violence from the political process in Northern Ireland."

In addition to renunciation of violence and a commitment to a democratic process for resolving the conflict, Sinn Fein also agreed to support "total disarmament" of all paramilitary groups on both sides of the sectarian divide and to abide by the terms of all resolutions reached through the negotiations and not to attempt to change them except through democratic means.

Adams called today's step "a watershed" and urged unionist representatives not to boycott next week's talks. "We could find lots of reasons for not believing the unionists and for not being here," he said. "We could find lots of reasons for refusing to talk to the British government, the loyalists and the unionists, but that is not what this process is about."

Richard McAuley, a Sinn Fein spokesman, said the group's endorsement of the Mitchell principles represents another step toward "removing the gun from Irish politics," but he acknowledged that much remains to be done. "We have to build on it" to prevent a future collapse of the talks, he said. But David Ervine, who represents another largely Protestant party, spoke for many on the other side when he said, "Signing up is one thing, living with them is another."

David Kerr, an assistant to Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble, said his party continues to question Sinn Fein's commitment to nonviolence, in part because its leaders had said they were not directly linked to the IRA and, as a political party, have been committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Nearly three decades of sectarian violence between majority Protestant unionists, or loyalists, who favor continued union with Britain, and minority Catholic republicans, or nationalists, who seek closer ties or merger with the Republic of Ireland to the south, have left more than 3,200 people dead in the British-ruled province.

"We don't really believe it," Kerr said of Sinn Fein's pledge today. "We would say that Sinn Fein and the IRA are inextricably linked. They are two sides of the same coin." Kerr said that, given the history of IRA violence, Sinn Fein should demonstrate its commitment to nonviolence by surrendering some of its weapons, rather than simply making pledges.

All the parties that generally represent the Protestant population stayed away from today's meeting, adding to the pressure on Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party as they decide what form, if any, its participation might take. A decision by the biggest of the unionist parties to boycott the talks would effectively kill them before they begin, but with an overwhelming percentage of the party's leadership favoring some kind of participation -- even if that involves not talking directly to Sinn Fein's representatives -- the Ulster Unionists' presence is likely.

"We're not going to allow Sinn Fein to marginalize the Unionists," Kerr said.

Reuter reported from Washington:

The United States said it halted deportation proceedings today for six Irish nationals who have completed their prison sentences for various crimes involving the IRA. U.S. officials described the move as a gesture to encourage the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Attorney General Janet Reno said she acted on a formal request from Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and suspended the deportations.

A Justice Department official said the six -- Robert McErlean, Matthew Morrison, Gabriel Megahey, Brian Pearson, Noel Gaynor and Gerald McDade -- had all completed their prison sentences. They were facing deportation for making false statements to immigration officials.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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