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Blair Meets with Sinn Fein at Belfast in Historic Talks

By Dan Balz
The Washington Post

Prime Minister Tony Blair held historic talks with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams on Monday 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 intended to end three decades of violent conflict between Northern Ireland's Protestant majority and a Catholic minority, many of whom want to reunite with the Irish Republic. But in a measure of the difficulty 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 his intervention can help produce a settlement, declared "genuine progress is being made" at the negotiating table. But his day-long visit to Northern Ireland underscored not only the sense of hopefulness that talks can produce a permanent, political settlement, but also the mutual hatred and suspicion that remain, which many fear could derail negotiations.

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 where 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."

About the time Adams was concluding his briefing of reporters on 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.

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, estimated at about 100, continued to pursue him and yell as he emerged to complete his walk, surrounded by police officers. Blair maintained a tight smile.

In his private meeting with Adams, Blair reportedly told the Sinn Fein leader the participants in the talks had 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.