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Key Protestant party coy on eve of N. Ireland talks

Sinn Fein  excluded September 14, 1997
Web posted at: 2:19 p.m. EDT (1819 GMT)

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- A crucial new round of Northern Ireland peace talks is to get under way Monday, but the role of a key pro-British party could jeopardize round-table talks, which for the first time include the nationalist Sinn Fein party.

Two smaller pro-British parties favoring continued British rule of Northern Ireland already announced they would boycott the talks, but the key Ulster Unionist Party of David Trimble said it would decide on Monday whether to negotiate directly with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.

Sinn Fein gained access to the talks for the first time after the IRA restored a cease-fire in July, announcing a halt in its decades-old violent campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland.

What's at Stake
At stake in Monday's talks is the success or failure of years of Anglo-Irish diplomacy, which has been aimed getting pro-British unionists and Irish nationalists to forge a lasting settlement for Northern Ireland. About 3,200 people have been killed in the decades-long conflict in the British province.

Trimble pledged that the Ulster Unionists, the sole mainstream voice of the 60 percent pro-British Protestant majority in the province, would be present at the start of the negotiations at Stormont Castle.

"We realize that in proceeding we will be involved directly or indirectly ... in a process that involves Sinn Fein," Trimble said in a British TV interview on Sunday.

Some analysts believe that Trimble's party will attend the opening of the talks but may then shun direct negotiations with Gerry Adams's Sinn Fein party, its political arch rival.

Tony Blair

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has urged the Ulster Unionists to take part in Monday's talks and said that Adams and Sinn Fein would have to answer some key questions at the negotiations.

Blair's comment came after the IRA issued a statement on Thursday, saying it could not agree with democratic principles for the talks, as drawn up by their chairman, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.

Mitchell backs Britain and Ireland's assertion that Northern Ireland's British status should not change until a majority wants it.

But the IRA and many Sinn Fein spokesmen say the province is an illegal colony and that the people of Ireland should also have a say in its future.

The IRA also said it disagreed with the Irish and British governments' goal of getting paramilitaries to surrender their arms during the talks, saying they would only do so at the end of negotiations.

Sinn Fein's chief negotiator Martin McGuinness said it was "time to stop all the stalling and delaying tactics (by Trimble) and move forward to bring the peace settlement."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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