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Sinn Fein leaders vote for conference on backing Northern Ireland police

Sinn Fein leaders vote for conference on backing Northern Ireland police

Sinn Fein leaders have agreed to convene an emergency conference and confront a pivotal issue in Northern Ireland peacemaking _ whether the IRA-linked party should support the police.
Members of Sinn Fein's 46-member executive board voted by more than the required two-thirds majority on Friday to mount a special conference of its 2,000-strong grassroots membership, most likely on Jan. 27 in Dublin.
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 in the British territory. Power-sharing collapsed four years ago amid conflicts between Protestants and Sinn Fein.
In a significant qualification, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said the conference would proceed only if the move received a sufficiently positive response from the Democratic Unionists, the major Protestant-backed party.
"The debate was frank, comradely and robust," Adams said after the meeting at a hotel near Dublin Airport.
The executive includes several veteran IRA commanders who focused the IRA's 1970-97 campaign on attacking police, particularly when they were off duty and most vulnerable. More than 300 officers were killed and thousands maimed.
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, said the current Sinn Fein effort was as historic as the IRA's decision last year to declare its 1997 cease-fire permanent and surrender its weapons stockpiles. Hain hopes to transfer control of 13 government departments to local hands March 26.
Sinn Fein said its motion, if passed, would commit the party's members to "actively encourage everyone in the community to cooperate fully with the police services in tackling crime in all areas and actively supporting all the criminal justice institutions."
If approved, Sinn Fein said it also would abandon its 5-year-old boycott of a Catholic-Protestant board in Belfast that oversees police reforms, as well as community-police liaison committees formed three years ago throughout Northern Ireland.
"For the first time there is the real prospect of all parties and all sections of the community in Northern Ireland supporting the rule of law," said a statement from British Prime Minister Tony Blair's office.
The Democratic Unionists appeared divided on the latest Sinn Fein move.
Party leader Ian Paisley declined to comment. His pragmatic deputy, Peter Robinson, said it "would be churlish not to acknowledge its historic potential."
But the most hard-line rump of lawmakers within Paisley's party, who appear opposed to cooperating with Sinn Fein under any circumstances, said Britain had probably promised Sinn Fein too much in return for any policing move.
The Democratic Unionist chairman, Lord Maurice Morrow, said the party would not take part in power-sharing by March 26 because Protestants needed more time to test Sinn Fein's conversion to law and order.
"It is patently obvious that Sinn Fein-IRA cannot deliver to the satisfaction of unionists in such a short space of time," Morrow said.
Sinn Fein has resisted recognizing the authority of the Northern Ireland police partly because of its potential to open up deadly divisions 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. Britain began deploying troops as peacekeepers in 1969 to stop street clashes between Catholic rioters and Protestant police.
The Good Friday pact recognized that political stability in Northern Ireland required full Catholic support for the police and reforms to the existing force, the military-style Royal Ulster Constabulary.
An internationally crafted plan to reshape the RUC into a more Catholic-friendly Police Service has scored wide-ranging gains over the past five years. Preferential hiring of Catholic applicants means the force has gone from 8 percent Catholic in 2001 to more than 20 percent today.
But the force cannot operate freely today in IRA strongholds, where Sinn Fein discourages people from telling police about crimes.


Updated : 2021-07-31 16:18 GMT+08:00