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Sinn Fein Now in the Spotlight After Protestant Group's OK of Peace Plan

April 19, 1998| From Times Wire Services

DUBLIN, Ireland — The focus of efforts to win popular backing for a Northern Ireland peace accord shifted to Sinn Fein republicans after the province's leading pro-British unionist party endorsed the deal.

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, overcoming some robust opposition, received 72% support for the hard-fought agreement at a meeting of his party council.

Defeat by the grass-roots decision-makers of the biggest Protestant party would have destroyed British government hopes that unionists would give widespread support to the pact in a referendum on May 22. The organization's executive committee voted its support a week ago.

Britain and the Irish republic sealed the accord, which envisages new structures to resolve decades of conflict over British rule, with eight parties on April 10 and will seek backing for it in polls on both sides of the Irish border.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, one of the chief architects of the initiative to end 30 years of guerrilla war over Northern Ireland's future, firmly applauded the Ulster Unionists' decision.

Trimble said the vote puts the fate of the peace process in the hands of the Irish Republican Army-allied Sinn Fein and called on the party to renounce violence once and for all.

"They have got an agreement. They have got an opportunity to move into the democratic process. They can see the opportunities that are there," Trimble said.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams began his party's two-day annual conference in Dublin on Saturday by trying to gently coax his supporters to back the deal.

Using historical references, folk music and a celebratory tone, he tried to convince delegates that the accord, while far from realizing their dream of Irish unity, was a significant step forward.

"While the agreement is not a settlement, it is a basis for advancement . . . and it could become a transitional stage toward reunification," Adams told about 2,000 party delegates and supporters.

One particularly tricky issue for Sinn Fein is the Irish Constitution, which will have to be amended to drop the republic's territorial claim on the six counties in Northern Ireland if the accord is approved.

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