Sinn Fein Goes to Peace Talks, Says it Is Independent of IRABy William D. Montalbano
Los Angeles Times
BELFAST, Northern Ireland
It was a day of history with an asterisk Monday in the elusive and frustrating search for peace in Northern Ireland.
The political arm of the outlawed Irish Republican Party came to substantive peace talks for the first time, but there was no substance to discuss because their Protestant foes stayed home.
After day-long cajoling by Britain and Ireland, and by George Mitchell, the American chairman for the talks, the largest Protestant party was still weighing Monday night when and in what fashion it would attend future sessions.
Even if they attend Tuesday, the prospect is for a long-shot, gritty and outwardly unspectacular slog between now and May 1998, the British deadline for agreement.
Sinn Fein, political wing of the IRA, has long sought full acceptance as a political player in its drive to end British control of Northern Ireland but, having won it, walked into a wasp's nest of hostility on Monday.
The British government and four moderate parties attending the talks demanded clarification of Sinn Fein's links to the IRA.
By most accounts, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adam's assertion that they are two separate organizations proved neither credible nor mollifying.
For its big day after violent decades as a political outsider, Sinn Fein mustered nearly two dozen negotiators and support personnel to accompany Adams to a nondescript office building on the grounds of Stormont Castle, the British government's headquarters in the embattled province.
"This is a historic day. We moved into the first stage of negotiations but nothing much happened," said Sinn Fein delegate Francie Malloy. "We hope the unionists will come so that we can keep the situation moving."
David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, the largest Protestant party, met with Mitchell following a joint declaration by Britain and Ireland supporting unionist demands for the surrender of weapons as a parallel requirement to political talks.
Preface to Monday's session had been 16 months of going-nowhere preliminary talks without Sinn Fein, which got 16 percent of the provincial vote in the last election here but was banned from talks without restoration of an IRA cease-fire. That cease-fire came in July.
Opening sessions Monday afternoon were adjourned to allow Mitchell to meet with Trimble.
"This problem has been going on for 800 years, so you can understand an hour or two's delay," a determinedly upbeat Irish Foreign Minister Ray Burke told reporters.
Mitchell, the former U.S. Senate majority leader, said his encounter with Trimble was "constructive." But there was no sign Monday night that the impasse - with the main party representing the 60 percent Protestant majority that wants Northern Ireland to remain British - had been broken.
"It was a tetchy day inside the conference, and uncertain one outside," said Seamus Malloy, deputy leader of the moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party, the largest party representing the 40 percent Roman Catholic minority in the province.
Trimble and leaders of all other unionist parties were furious last week after Sinn Fein signed a commitment to democratic principles but the IRA promptly disavowed a commitment about submitting any political settlement to a provincial vote, and said it would not surrender any weapons until talks had ended.
At Trimble's prodding, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern issued a statement Monday saying that Mitchell's demands for democratic commitment and phased weapon surrender remain the foundation for the talks. They also specifically upheld the right of the Northern Ireland electorate to ratify any settlement.
The IRA argues that the province should belong to a united Ireland, so all residents of the island of Ireland, north and south, should vote; that would mean a Catholic majority.
Lord John Alderdice, the psychiatrist leader of the centrist Alliance Party, was the only prominent Protestant leader present Monday. He said he had pressed Adams on Sinn Fein's relationship with the IRA.
Protestant parties, the British government, the Irish government and the United States believe them to have a common leadership.
"I asked Adams a number of crucial questions, noting for example that if Sinn Fein and the IRA are not one body, then any agreement with Sinn Fein will not be guaranteed," Alderdice said. "If, on the other hand, Sinn Fein does represent the IRA, we could look with confidence to agreements."