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Sinn Fein members gather for historic conference to back Northern Ireland police

Sinn Fein members gather for historic conference to back Northern Ireland police

Sinn Fein activists from throughout Ireland gathered Sunday to vote on accepting the legitimacy of Northern Ireland's police force _ a long-unthinkable move that could pave the way for revived power-sharing in the British territory.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was expected to win overwhelming backing from his party's 2,500-strong conference, of which about 1,000 people were eligible to vote on a motion offering conditional support to the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
The Irish Republican Army-linked party long backed the IRA's effort to overthrow Northern Ireland by force, a 27-year campaign that left 1,775 dead, including nearly 300 police officers, before the outlawed group called a 1997 cease-fire.
Adams has slowly edged his party towards accepting law and order in hopes of forging a coalition with the Democratic Unionists, which represents most of the British Protestant majority in Northern Ireland.
Such power-sharing was the central goal of Northern Ireland's Good Friday peace accord of 1998, but has been hold since 2002 because of chronic Protestant-Sinn Fein conflicts. Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley insists he won't form a Cabinet unless Sinn Fein, the major Catholic-backed party, dumps its traditional hostility to the predominantly Protestant police force.
A motion already backed by Sinn Fein's 46-member executive commits Sinn Fein to appoint members to a joint Catholic-Protestant board overseeing a mammoth reform program. That five-year effort has already boosted the number of Catholic officers in police ranks from 8 percent to 20 percent _ but police still cannot live or operate normally today in Sinn Fein power bases.
As Adams arrived at the Royal Dublin Society conference hall, a half-dozen diehards from a dissident Sinn Fein faction shouted "traitor!" at him. They held placards pleading with delegates not to begin working with the "child killers" of the Northern Ireland police.
But inside the conference, hundreds of Sinn Fein activists _ among them scores of IRA veterans with prison sentences behind them _ chatted excitedly over coffee and tea as upbeat music of uilleann pipe, fiddle and bodhran drum blasted from loudspeakers.
To be passed, the motion requires at least 50 percent support from voting delegates. But Adams and other senior Sinn Fein figures are publicly confident of winning a much higher level of backing.
Crucially, however, the executive's motion commits Sinn Fein to begin supporting the police only after power-sharing is revived _ and, just as contentiously, only if the Democratic Unionists agree to transfer control of Northern Ireland's justice system, including the police, from Britain to local hands by May 2008.
The motion specifies that Sinn Fein activists will be instructed to open normal relations with police "only when the power-sharing institutions are established" and Sinn Fein leaders are "satisfied that policing and justice powers will be transferred."
Such conditions are likely to lead to further protracted arguments with their would-be government partners in the Democratic Unionists.
Paisley says his party will make no commitments on dates to share power, or to permit control of police to be transferred to the coalition, until Protestants receive evidence of real cooperation with the police on the ground in Sinn Fein-controlled areas.
Britain insists it will enforce a string of deadlines for ensuring the success _ or ultimate failure _ of power-sharing. The schedule presumed Sinn Fein would vote to back the police Sunday.
This would be followed Tuesday by the official closure of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the 108-member body with the power to form or block a Catholic-Protestant administration. A new Assembly election would be held March 7, followed a week later by the election of a 12-member, four-party administration.
Britain would transfer control of Northern Ireland's dozen government departments to local hands March 26, and says it will hand responsibility for the police and courts to the coalition by May 2008 _ but only if the Democratic Unionists, the largest party in the province, agree to this move.
If the Democratic Unionists refuse to cooperate with Sinn Fein by March 26, British Prime Minister Tony Blair insists he will dissolve the newly elected assembly.


Updated : 2021-04-17 13:32 GMT+08:00