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Sinn Fein will work with police

The vote of support is key for power sharing in Northern Ireland.

January 29, 2007|William Graham | Special to The Times

DUBLIN, IRELAND — Sinn Fein members voted overwhelmingly Sunday to take the historic step of endorsing a reformed police force in Northern Ireland, a key action on the path of establishing a power-sharing arrangement in the British province.

Upward of 1,000 delegates gathered in the Royal Dublin Society conference hall for the emotional debate, taking place against a long history of republican opposition to the police, who arrested and killed many Roman Catholics over the decades in which they fought for Northern Ireland's independence from Britain.

The vote was by a show of hands. It resulted in an estimated 90% of delegates backing the Sinn Fein leadership strategy that could eventually see republicans taking places on the policing board and advising young Catholics to join the once-hated service.

Support for policing is one of the twin pillars of the St. Andrews political agreement hammered out in Scotland last year aimed at restoring a power-sharing government of Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

The other half of the agreement calls for Sinn Fein's political opponent, the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party led by Ian Paisley, to share power at the Stormont parliament building in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland.

The vote gave Sinn Fein's ruling executive the authority to declare support for the police force when the power sharing is restored and policing powers are transferred to a local Assembly.

Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, told the voting delegates, "You have created the potential to change the political landscape on this island forever.

"You have created the opportunities to significantly advance our struggle and you have seized the opportunity to further our primary objective of a united Ireland through building greater political strength."

Paisley, meanwhile, said Sunday that the time for visible Sinn Fein support for policing had arrived.

"Anything less than full implementation of Sinn Fein's commitments [on policing] would render the [conference] vote valueless," he said. "Only with real delivery can the way be cleared for a full return of democracy."

Both the British and Irish governments warmly welcomed the Sinn Fein conference vote.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair described it as a historic decision, while his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, said it was a landmark vote that opened the way to Northern Ireland power-sharing.

The overwhelming majority was important for Sinn Fein leader Adams, who was able to avoid any kind of split in the party at the conference.

Some delegates from the party's youth group, Ogra Shinn Fein, however, warned that the policing move could turn out to be a mistake.

Political parties are to meet today for the last time in their transitional Assembly before embarking on a new election campaign. If all goes according to plan, the political institutions could be restored by March 28.

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