BY TONY HUNT AND IAN GRANT
LONDON - A new phase in the struggle for Irish freedom opened September 15, when the London government finally entered formal negotiations that include Sinn Fein, the leading party fighting for an end to British colonial rule in Ireland. This was the first time since the partition of Ireland in 1921 that the British imperialists had engaged in such talks. Sinn Fein's involvement comes 15 months after the present series of talks began.
The following day, a 400-pound bomb exploded outside the police station in a the town of Markethill, in County Armagh. The Ulster Unionist Party, (UUP) the largest of the loyalist (pro-British) parties who had up to that point refused to join the talks, seized on this as a pretext to call for Sinn Fein to be excluded. The Irish Republican Army (IRA), which has observed a cease-fire since July 20, immediately denied responsibility for the attack.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said the explosion was regrettable, but should not be used as an excuse for the Unionists to stay out of the talks.
Following the explosion, the talks were adjourned for the day by their chairperson, former U.S. senator George Mitchell.
In a statement at the opening of the talks Adams, who led the Sinn Fein delegation, said, "We are here as an Irish republican party. We do think this could be the beginning of the end of conflict on this island if the political will is there to build agreement, and we certainly have that will.
"We think the logic for a small island like this and for 5 million people is to have the unity and independence of Ireland," he continued. "That issue is on the agenda because we put it there." In addition to the Sinn Fein delegation, representatives of the Irish Government, the British Government, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), Alliance Party, and the Women's Coalition were also represented.
Divisions among Unionist parties
Bitter divisions are wracking the Unionist parties - so called because they favor the continued "union" of Northern Ireland with Britain. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) stayed away from the talks when they opened. David Trimble, leader of the UUP, issued a statement saying that given certain conditions he intended to participate "as soon as possible." The UUP leadership instead met leaders of two smaller loyalist groups, the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), and the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP), which have links with rightist terror gangs the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA) respectively, in an attempt to hammer out a common approach to the talks now that Sinn Fein is included.
Trimble and representatives of the PUP and UDP showed up at the talks after the day's business had already begun September 17. "We are not prepared to tolerate Sinn Fein being portrayed as a party of peace and Unionists as a problem," the UUP leader declared. "We are not there to negotiate with them but to confront them, to expose their fascist character."
Two days earlier, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Peter Robinson launched a bitter attack on Trimble and the loyalist leaders who met with him. He said future generations would curse them for their folly in entering a process "designed to destroy them."
Trimble and the others had, he said, "ditched every principle they ever held," and been "sucked into a process, which by it's very nature would damage the union." The DUP and the UK Unionists, a fifth loyalist organization, have abandoned the talks.
A joint statement issued by the Irish and British Prime Ministers to "clarify" and "spell out their views on two crucial issues, consent and decommissioning," was favorably received by Trimble.
By focusing on these two issues the leader of the UUP aimed, ahead of entering talks, to shore up the principle of a Unionist veto over any proposed settlement, and make the IRA's refusal to surrender arms an obstacle to the talks progressing. UK government officials said the statement made no change to the substance of their existing position on these matters.
The first session of the talks themselves was taken up with questions from the Alliance Party representative J. Allerdice about Sinn Fein's links to the IRA. British secretary of state for Northern Ireland Marjorie Mowlam also chose to question Sinn Fein's commitment to the Mitchell Principles of nonviolence, which all parties in the talks have signed. She cited the statement the previous week by an IRA spokesperson in an interview with Republican News that "the IRA would have problems with sections of the Mitchell Principles. But then the IRA is not a participant in these talks."
`We want a totally demilitarized situation'
Adams, outlined his party's stance on the Mitchell principles to journalists outside Stormont on September 9. "I am very pleased and welcome the opportunity to affirm these principles on behalf of Sinn Fein," he said. "Unfortunately the British Government narrowed the brief of the Mitchell International Body... We want a total demilitarization of the situation." Adams went on to cite serious breaches of the Mitchell principles since they had been signed up to in June - by the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) against nationalist communities in the north of Ireland. He pointed to incidents on the Garvaghy Road in Belfast, in which thousands of rounds of plastic bullets had been fired, and repeated violations of the loyalist paramilitary cease-fires.
Women from the Relatives Justice Group, Women Together, the Bloody Sunday Relatives Group, and relatives of Colin Duffy, a Lurgan man charged with the murder of two policemen, held a vigil outside the talks. During their action Rita Restorick, mother of the latest British soldier to be killed in Ireland last February, embraced Kay Duddy, whose brother was killed by the British Army while demonstrating for civil rights on what became known as Bloody Sunday, Jan. 30, 1972.
On the eve of the talks, thousands of people marched from nationalist areas to Belfast City Hall September 14. The demonstration was organized by Saoirse, the campaign for the release of Irish political prisoners. Sinn Fein negotiator Gerry Kelly addressed the marchers and stressed that the release of political prisoners would be a central issue in the talks. He saluted those fighters and their families imprisoned by the British state. "We are nearly 30 years into this struggle for British withdrawal and a united Ireland," he said, "and many thousands of people, of nationalists, have been through jail during that period." Kelly urged the marchers to continue demonstrating on the streets. Protest activity will play an important role in the negotiations, he said.
Ian Grant is a member of the Transport and General
Workers Union in London.
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