Sinn Fein invited to Northern Ireland talks
Some Protestant political groups vow boycott
August 29, 1997
Web posted at: 8:16 a.m. EDT (1216 GMT)
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- The British government on Friday invited Sinn Fein, the political ally of outlawed Irish Republican Army guerrillas, to join multi-party talks on the future of Northern Ireland.
The historic announcement, made by Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam at a Belfast news conference, came less than six weeks after the IRA -- Catholic militants seeking the end of British rule in Northern Ireland -- declared a new cease-fire, ending a campaign of bombings which had hit both Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. (
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"Active targeting has stopped," Mowlam said.
Noting the "absence of IRA activity on the ground," she said she decided that Sinn Fein met the requirements for participation in the talks, which are due to resume on September 15.
But she added Sinn Fein must still agree to principles of non-violence laid down by talks chairman George Mitchell, a former United States senator.
The British government has not treated Sinn Fein as an equal partner in political talks since 1921 when the rest of Ireland became independent.
Sinn Fein chief negotiator Martin McGuinness said his party would use the talks as an opportunity to argue that the partition of Ireland years ago had failed.
"We believe the best solution is a unitary state, a united Ireland. But we are also going with open minds to listen to what other people have to say," he said.
Mowlam's statement was welcomed by the Irish government but looked likely to provoke a bitter reaction from Northern Ireland Protestants determined to keep the province attached to Britain.
On Thursday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair met with David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, the largest Protestant political grouping in the province.
"Sinn Fein," Trimble said afterward, "have not established a commitment to exclusively peaceful means."
Unionist doubts about negotiating with Sinn Fein are fueled by the huge caches of arms and explosives which the IRA still possesses, many of them stored in secret bunkers in the Irish countryside.
At the least, say the Protestants, the IRA should give up some of the weapons to show that this time the cease-fire is intended to be permanent.
The second largest unionist party, the Democratic Unionists, and the smaller United Kingdom Unionists have both said they will pull out of the talks if Sinn Fein is admitted. Trimble has so far kept his options open.
Northern Ireland's Social Democratic and Labor Party, Sinn Fein's moderate rival for Catholic voters, applauded the government's invitation.
An earlier cease-fire, which lasted 17 months, ended in February 1996 with an IRA bombing in London followed by a series of other attacks on the British mainland.
Correspondent Siobhan Darrow and Reuters contributed to this report.