Blair Has Historic Meeting With Leader of IRA Ally
By Dan Balz
Prime Minister Tony Blair held historic talks with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams today in the first meeting between a British prime minister and an Irish republican leader since Ireland was partitioned in 1921.
The meeting was designed to push forward fragile peace negotiations aimed at ending three decades of violent conflict between Northern Ireland's Protestant majority and a large Catholic minority, many of whom want to reunite with the Irish Republic. But in an indication of the difficulties ahead, Blair, after the talks, faced furious Protestant demonstrators who jostled him and called him a traitor for meeting and shaking hands with Adams.
Blair, who is gambling that his intervention can help produce a settlement, declared that "genuine progress is being made" at the negotiating table. But his day-long visit to Northern Ireland underscored not only an ingrained sense of hopefulness that the talks can produce a permanent political settlement, but also the persistent mutual hatred and suspicion between the two sides, which many fear could derail the negotiations short of their goal.
In deference to the feelings of Protestants and those supporting continued union with Britain, Blair's handshake with Adams took place out of view of the television camera crews and photographers camped outside the drab government building in which the negotiations are being held. The meeting with Sinn Fein, the legal political arm of the outlawed Irish Republican Army, lasted a little more than 15 minutes. It was one of a series of brief sessions Blair conducted with representatives of all sides involved in the multiparty talks.
The prime minister said he stressed the importance of all parties committing themselves to principles of nonviolence and democracy and to giving the people of the region the final say in any negotiated settlement. Those principles are "the passport to being part of building the future of Northern Ireland," he said. Anyone who violates them "will not be in the talks process."
Blair, who was photographed at other stops during the day shaking hands with other participants in the talks, played down the significance of the handshake with Adams. "I treated Gerry Adams and the members of Sinn Fein in the same way that I treat any human being," he said. "What is important about the situation here in Northern Ireland is that we do actually treat each other as human beings."
Adams praised Blair as "a man who certainly recognizes that this is an historic opportunity" and said he emphasized to the prime minister Sinn Fein's goal of producing a united Ireland. "We want him to be the prime minister who brings that about," Adams said. "I said to him, we want him to be the last British prime minister with jurisdiction in Ireland."
But about the time Adams was concluding his briefing of reporters on the contents of the meeting with Blair, the prime minister was facing a backlash by a group of angry protesters during a brief walking tour of a shopping center in a Protestant section of Belfast.
The protesters pushed and shoved at Blair and screamed abuse, accusing him of having "blood on his hands" for meeting with Adams. As his small security contingent struggled to help him through the crowd, other demonstrators waved the Union Jack and yelled "traitor!" One woman yelled, "You are contaminated! I'll not shake hands with you!"
Blair was taken into a bank building briefly, but the protesters, about 100 of them, continued to pursue him and yell as he emerged to complete his walk, surrounded by police officers. Blair maintained a tight smile as he was escorted through the crowd.
The prime minister had toured other areas of Northern Ireland before arriving in Belfast and was warmly received. But as if anticipating the protest he was soon to face, Blair had told reporters after the meeting with Adams that he was not bothered by words of anger hurled at him or at Marjorie Mowlam, his cabinet secretary for Northern Ireland. What matters, he said, is that within a few months of his election, "we managed to get a process underway" that holds the prospect of "a lasting political settlement."
Blair's efforts to move the talks forward, notably his decision to invite Sinn Fein to participate weeks after the IRA announced another cease-fire, have angered the mostly Protestant unionist community, whose leaders say he has made concessions to terrorists while turning his back on their demands. Many unionists have warned that the IRA eventually will break its latest cease-fire if the talks do not produce the exact settlement it wants.
Blair pledged "all the energy and commitment and dynamism" that he can bring to the peace process, which he has made one of his most visible priorities. In his private meeting with Adams, Blair reportedly told the Sinn Fein leader that the participants in the talks have a historic opportunity to bring about peace in Northern Ireland. "If we don't seize it now, we may not see it again in my lifetime," he told Adams, according to a Downing Street official.
John Hume, who heads Northern Ireland's nationalist Social Democratic and Labor Party, said Blair's second trip to the region since his election is a sign of his commitment to the peace process.
"The very fact that he is doing what he's doing by coming here and visiting our cities has strengthened the will of the people for lasting peace . . . and is rightly putting pressure on all the representatives to deliver on lasting peace," Hume said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company