IRA Threat, Sinn Fein Demands Mar Start of Belfast Negotiations
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ Barred from long-delayed peace negotiations, the IRA’s political allies got a foot in the door today by being allowed into the building but not the talks.
``Sinn Fein are not at today’s talks because there has been no restoration of the August 1994 cease-fire,″ the British and Irish government said in a statement an hour before the talks formally opened.
The Sinn Fein was allowed through the main gates, but only to meet with civil servants. Senior British and Irish officials have refused to meet Sinn Fein since the IRA resumed its bombing campaign in February.
Protestant factions have insisted on maintaining Northern Ireland as a British state, while Roman Catholic leaders want it unified with the rest of Ireland, independent since 1921.
Gerry Adams, president of the IRA-allied Sinn Fein party, led a protest outside the Stormont complex after driving across town from Catholic West Belfast in a 15-car convoy escorted by police.
With Adams on the outside, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell of Maine, the talks chairman, met inside with the Rev. Ian Paisley. The hard-line Protestant leader had threatened to walk out of the negotiations because of the lead role given to Mitchell, the Clinton administration special envoy.
The nine Northern Ireland parties at the talks are seeking a compromise on how the divided province should be governed.
British Prime Minister John Major arrived in Belfast by helicopter for the formal opening with Irish Prime Minister John Bruton.
Adams led a 15-member Sinn Fein group, including convicted IRA bomber Gerard Kelly, into the Stormont complex, headquarters of the British administration in Northern Ireland.
``We are not going to be treated like second-class citizens. We would like the gates open, OK?″ Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator, told a British official before the gates were opened.
``It’s only a small step,″ McGuinness added with a smile.
The Sinn Fein convoy, with a British army helicopter clattering overhead, snarled traffic as it crawled through Belfast, using highways and avoiding the Protestant districts of East Belfast.
``You cannot expect people in a democracy to sit down and negotiate the future of part of their country with people who are relying ... upon the threat of violence if they don’t get what they want,″ Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew said on BBC radio.
In February, Major and Bruton announced the June 10 deadline for talks, calculating that a fixed date would soothe IRA supporters’ anger at the slow pace of the peace process.
The IRA had complained of the slow pace of the peace process when it ended its 17-month truce Feb. 9 with a truck bomb in London’s Docklands that killed two men.
The appointment of Mitchell, President Clinton’s key adviser on Northern Ireland, was also intended to show Sinn Fein these talks would not pursue an anti-IRA agenda.
John Taylor, deputy leader of the Ulster Unionists, the province’s largest party, said putting a Catholic with an Irish-American father in charge was ``the equivalent of an American Serb presiding over talks on the future of Croatia.″
Mitchell is supposed to oversee a section of negotiations that determines how Northern Ireland’s rival paramilitary groups _ the IRA and pro-British ``loyalists,″ who are still observing their own 20-month truce _ begin disarming under international supervision.
Cardinal Cahal Daly, the religious leader of Ireland’s 4 million Catholics, made a last-minute appeal for an IRA cease-fire.
``The paramount obligation is the non-use of violence or the threat of violence as a political weapon,″ Daly said.