LONDON — British Prime Minister John Major on Wednesday made an unannounced visit to Northern Ireland, which was disrupted when Sinn Fein protesters clashed with the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Londonderry.
It was the worst street disturbance in Northern Ireland since the Irish Republican Army called a cease-fire eight months ago. And the incident put into question the first talks, scheduled next Wednesday, between the British government and Sinn Fein, the IRA's political arm.
At least seven officers were hurt in the scuffle, none seriously, police reported.
After the fracas, Major declared that the protesters had participated in "a riot organized as far as we can tell by Sinn Fein." As to the future of the Wednesday talks with the republican group, Major declared: "We must wait and see what Sinn Fein has to say."
Later, Downing Street sources said the talks will probably go ahead.
Major called on Sinn Fein leaders to condemn Wednesday's violence and dismissed their claim that the trouble was actually caused by police, saying that assertion was "absolute nonsense."
Sinn Fein members, as well as their implacable opponents, the Protestant Unionists, criticized the timing of Major's visit as an attempt to bolster his Conservative Party's fortunes in today's local elections in England and Wales. Political commentators have suggested that the Tory party will lose hundreds of local council seats.
Earlier, speaking in Templepatrick, Major again insisted that the IRA must decommission its weapons before Sinn Fein can enter into the full political process.
On arrival in Belfast, Major seemed untroubled by two dozen Sinn Fein demonstrators who demanded "political" prisoners be released. "Sinn Fein," he said, is "entitled to hold demonstrations. It is because they live in a democratic society that they can do that."
But in Londonderry, where Major was to visit the historic Tower Museum that has a display of the town's contribution to World War II, the demonstrators clashed with police beneath the old city walls.
Later, Major went ahead with his visit to the museum.