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Rancor and Wrangling Mark Opening of N. Ireland Talks

Britain: Unionists challenge choice of former U.S. senator as chairman. And Sinn Fein's leader protests being barred.

June 11, 1996|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Under the lingering threat of violence, a historic assembly seeking peace in Northern Ireland began amid controversy Monday, marred by political squabbling among participants and rancor from uninvited representatives of the outlawed Irish Republican Army.

British and Irish sponsors called the talks the best chance for peace in decades, but the opening day did not encourage hopes for a lasting settlement of bloody sectarian differences.

Protestant parties loyal to the continued union of Northern Ireland with Britain challenged the choice of an American, former Sen. George Mitchell of Maine, as conference chairman. Mitchell did not chair Monday's session but listened to the proceedings from an adjoining room. His role will be debated at today's session.

Sinn Fein, the political arm of the predominantly Roman Catholic IRA, which seeks Northern Ireland's union with Ireland, was refused entry to the conference because of the IRA's failure to declare a new cease-fire in its 25-year war against British rule.

On a day of high political camp and sometimes calculated confusion, British and Irish officials banned press access to the conference, leaving more than 200 journalists jostling in a parking lot. There, under a bright sun in a forest of cameras, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams denounced proceedings he thirsted to attend.

"We are here because we were elected to come here. We are here to take our part in the collective efforts for the peace," Adams said. "I feel cheated. There wouldn't even be the possibility of multi-party talks if it hadn't been for Sinn Fein. We have been denied our rights."

Adams arrived with more than a dozen other Sinn Fein members elected as peace negotiators in May 30 voting. Sinn Fein won 17 seats out of 110 at the forum in that vote.

Officials admitted Sinn Fein negotiator Martin McGuinness to the conference building to officially advise him of his party's unwelcome: "Sinn Fein are not at today's talks because there has been no restoration of the August 1994 cease-fire," said the terse joint Anglo-Irish veto.

Outside, Adams conferred with McGuinness and then led a march back to a tall mesh gate topped with three fresh strands of barbed wire to demand that the prohibition be formally read to him. He waited in vain.

*

As Adams jockeyed in the parking lot, Protestant unionists inside the talks massed for attack against Mitchell in defiance of the two prime minister-architects of the conference, Britain's John Major and Ireland's John Bruton.

Major and Bruton were urging sacrifice, patience and commitment to the difficult search for peace.

"There is a great deal of hope in the belief that these negotiations offer the best possibility for a peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland for many decades. We can't afford to fail," Major said.

Bruton, who, like Major, has thrown the prestige of his government behind the peace effort, appealed directly to the Catholics.

"The talks offer the first chance for over 70 years for all involved, including those who have traditionally relied on force, to get around the same table to map out a future of peace, of justice, of hope," Bruton said. "The campaigning demand of the republican movement has been 'Peace Talks Now.' Today is now! It is a matter of grave disappointment to my government that Sinn Fein is not at this table today."

A poll published Sunday said 97% of the people in Northern Ireland favor a new cease-fire.

The cease-fire declared by the IRA on Aug. 31, 1994, proved the catalyst for the peace process and brought 17 months of quiet to Northern Ireland after 25 years of violence that claimed 3,200 lives. On Feb. 9, though, the IRA exploded a huge truck bomb in London that killed two men and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Northern Ireland has remained quiet, but subsequent London bombs confirmed the end of the cease-fire.

At a news conference Tuesday, Major said: "No amount of grandstanding can hide the fact that all-party talks are a reality and that they are going to continue. Sinn Fein can be a part of that process provided there is an unequivocal cease-fire."

Bruton seconded the no cease-fire/no Sinn Fein policy, which is shared by the Clinton administration.

Under Major-Bruton plans, Mitchell--a former Democratic Senate majority leader who headed an international commission that offered compromise suggestions for peace earlier this year--is to chair plenary sessions of the conference and parallel talks on the surrender of arms by both Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups.

But the Rev. Ian Paisley and other militant unionists have threatened to leave the conference if Mitchell is confirmed. They resent an American intrusion in British-Irish affairs, and they regard Mitchell as an Irish Catholic too closely identified with the notorious-to-loyalists Kennedy clan.

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