Irish leader links IRA disarmament with Sinn Fein's government role
Ahern softens comments after nationalists object
February 14, 1999
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- Northern Ireland's peace process faced a new row Sunday when Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern suggested that IRA guerrillas need to disarm before their Sinn Fein political allies can have a role in the province's new local government.
Ahern later backed off the comment, made in an interview with the Sunday Times, after Sinn Fein chairman Mitchel McLaughlin said Ahern's position would create a "crisis" in the peace process.
Politicians in the new Northern Ireland assembly meet Monday for discussions on formation of a 10-member, multiparty council that will exercise executive powers in the province, under provisions of last year's Good Friday peace agreement.
Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, is supposed to get two of the seats. But the Ulster Unionists, the major Protestant party, are refusing to press ahead with formation of the executive unless the IRA starts disarming, or "decommissioning" weapons, as called for in the peace accord.
"Our view is that decommissioning in one form or another has to happen," Ahern told the Sunday Times. "It is not compatible with being part of a government, and part of an executive, if there is not at least a commencement of decommissioning."
Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble welcomed Ahern's comments, saying Sinn Fein and the IRA must "decide once and for all which is more important to them -- the retention of a paramilitary organization or leaving terror behind and coming into the political process."
But later, a spokesman for the Irish prime minister clarified his comments, insisting Ahern "did not say that Sinn Fein should be banned or not allowed to participate in the executive unless the IRA had started decommissioning."
Ahern offered a similar clarification in an interview with Irish broadcaster RTE and in a direct conversation with Sinn Fein's chief peace negotiator, Martin McGuinness.
"(He) made it clear that he had not said, as was reported, that Sinn Fein should be barred from the executive," McGuinness said. "There are no preconditions to Sinn Fein's entry in the agreement which we all signed up to on Good Friday."
But Liam Clarke, the journalist who interviewed Ahern, told BBC radio that he stood by the article.
The peace accord specified that disarmament should finish by May 2000 but didn't specify a starting date.
The IRA declared a cease-fire in July 1997 and backed Sinn Fein's negotiation efforts. But it has resisted disarming because the peace accord leaves intact Northern Ireland's status as a British-controlled province.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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