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Sinn Fein leaders vote for party conference on backing Northern Ireland police

Sinn Fein leaders vote for party conference on backing Northern Ireland police

Sinn Fein leaders voted Friday to convene an emergency conference and confront a pivotal issue in Northern Ireland peacemaking _ whether the IRA-linked party should support the police force for the British territory.
Backing party leader Gerry Adams, members of Sinn Fein's executive board voted by more than the required two-thirds majority to mount a special conference of its 2,000-strong grassroots membership sometime in January.
The move followed months of stalemate with Protestant leaders, who insist they will form a power-sharing government _ the central goal of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord _ only if the Catholics of Sinn Fein dump their anti-police policy. Power-sharing collapsed four years ago amid chronic conflicts between Protestants and Sinn Fein.
And in a significant qualification, Adams said the conference would proceed only if the move received a sufficiently positive response from the Democratic Unionists, the major Protestant-backed party. He said a specific date for the conference would be set soon.
"The debate was frank, comradely and robust," Adams said after the 6 1/2-hour meeting at a hotel near Dublin Airport.
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said the conference represented "a defining moment in the peace process. A successful outcome is vital to the continuing success of this process."
Ahern said the 14-year-old peace process had already radically improved the predominantly Protestant police. He said Sinn Fein support for the force would "make a real difference to the daily lives of many people across both communities in Northern Ireland affected by crime and other issues which only the police can properly address."
Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain, compared the current Sinn Fein effort to IRA peace commitments last year, when the outlawed group declared its 1997 cease-fire permanent and surrendered its weapons stockpiles to disarmament chiefs.
"This move by Gerry Adams is of enormous significance and is of seismic importance," said Hain, who hopes to transfer control of 13 government departments to local hands March 26.
"Full cooperation by (Irish) republicans with the police, over issues like rape and burglaries, is vital if Northern Ireland is to go into the New Year with a spring of confidence to achieve devolution by the D-Day of March 26," Hain said.
Sinn Fein offered no specific breakdown of the vote within the 46-member party executive, which includes IRA veterans involved in killing nearly 300 officers and maiming thousands of others during the IRA's 1970-97 campaign.
The Democratic Unionists appeared divided on whether to welcome or dismiss the latest Sinn Fein moves.
A leading pragmatist in the ranks, lawmaker Jeffrey Donaldson, said he welcomed what he considered "a first step to Sinn Fein embracing the police and the rule of law in Northern Ireland."
But others, who appear opposed to cooperating with Sinn Fein under any circumstances, questioned what Britain had promised Sinn Fein in return for any policing move.
The Democratic Unionist chairman, Lord Maurice Morrow, said his supporters needed much more time to assess Sinn Fein's conversion and would not cooperate March 26.
"It is patently obvious that Sinn Fein-IRA cannot deliver to the satisfaction of unionists in such a short space of time," Morrow said. He called on Hain to "spell out in clear, unambiguous terms what new concessions are to be delivered by (the British) government."
The Irish government and moderate Catholic leaders in Northern Ireland said most Catholics wanted police to have freedom to operate in traditional IRA strongholds. They cited a survey this month that indicated 79 percent Catholic support for the police.
Sinn Fein has resisted recognizing the authority of the Northern Ireland police because of the potentially dangerous divisions it could open up in Sinn Fein-IRA ranks. In recent weeks, Adams and other Sinn Fein leaders have warned they face potential assassination by IRA dissidents who accuse them of betraying IRA sacrifices.
The predominantly Protestant territory, formed in 1921 shortly before the overwhelmingly Catholic rest of Ireland won independence from Britain, never received Catholic support for its Protestant-dominated government and police force.
The Good Friday pact recognized that political stability in Northern Ireland required full Catholic support for the police and dramatic reforms to the existing force, the military-style Royal Ulster Constabulary.
An internationally authored 771-point plan to reshape the RUC into a more Catholic-friendly Police Service began in 2000 and has scored wide-ranging gains, including a rapid rise in Catholic recruitment to more than 20 percent of officers.


Updated : 2021-04-10 20:46 GMT+08:00