Hopes for N. Ireland Talks Rely on Squeezing the IRA

Pressure is coming from all sides on the Irish Republican Army to give peace a chance in Northern Ireland as peace talks open in Belfast today.

Governments in London, Dublin, and Washington, as well as the vast majority of Northern Ireland's citizens, have called on the paramilitary group to call a new cease-fire.

Even Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, appealed to the IRA to reconsider its refusal to renew the cease-fire it broke last February with a bomb blast in London.

Without a cease-fire, Mr. Adams and other Sinn Fein leaders will be blocked from what are supposed to be all-party talks on Northern Ireland's future.

The talks aim to reconcile two main political traditions in Northern Ireland, Protestant-backed unionism, which wants the province to stay part of the United Kingdom, and Catholic-backed Irish nationalism, which seeks to unite Northern Ireland with the independent Ireland.

Both Britain and Ireland say Sinn Fein, the most militant voice of Irish nationalism, can only be heard at the talks if it proves its commitment to politics by ending the IRA's war.

Former US Sen. George Mitchell arrived in Belfast to chair the forum soon after President Clinton at the weekend had again appealed to the IRA to make it possible for Sinn Fein to be admitted.

Senator Mitchell earlier this year reported to the British government on the prospects for peace in Northern Ireland and drew up six principles which, if fulfilled by all the parties, he said would produce a lasting political settlement.

He spoke as fresh evidence emerged of massive support for peace among people of voting age in Northern ireland.

An opinion poll in the Dublin-based Sunday Tribune showed 97 percent of people, including 84 percent of Sinn Fein voters, want the IRA to renew its cease-fire.

As internal and international pressure on the IRA mounted, politicians from the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), a moderate party representing the province's Protestants, showed signs of drifting apart on whether Sinn Fein should be allowed to participate.

Even if the IRA announced "a cease-fire of convenience," Sinn Fein should be barred from attending, said Peter Robinson, deputy leader of the radical Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Furthermore, the choice of Mitchell to head the talks makes some Protestants uneasy. Earlier, DUP leader Ian Paisley said Mitchell could not be trusted as chairman. "He is carrying too much American Irish baggage," Mr. Paisley said.

Yet David Trimble, leader of the larger UUP, said a new IRA ceasefire might "get Sinn Fein to the door." To be fully admitted to the all-party talks, however, its leadership would have to "commit itself to peace and democracy."

Mr. Trimble added that he had doubts about Mitchell's objectivity and had sought "certain assurances" before finally agreeing to lead a UUP delegation to the opening round.

Mitchell, at an impromptu news conference in Belfast Saturday, said he planned to show "fairness and impartiality."

The attitudes of the two unionist parties appeared to reflect concern that the IRA would declare a ceasefire before the talks opened, or during the early stages, technically clearing the way for Sinn Fein participation.

David Wilshire, a senior Conservative member of Britain's Parliament, who supports the unionist cause, said Sunday that a cease-fire by the IRA now would be a "cynical ploy." He added that "the government should not fall for it."

Sinn Fein leaders, meanwhile, met on Saturday and announced that, regardless of the IRA's intentions, Adams and other Sinn Fein leaders would turn up at the opening session and demand to be admitted. They cited the party's strong showing at last month's special elections to the peace forum at which they obtained 15 percent of the vote and won a strong mandate from Catholic voters in West Belfast.

It was "the British government's responsibility" to urge the IRA to renew its truce, said Martin McGuinness, Adams's deputy. Yet Adams himself made a direct approach to the IRA.

This was confirmed by Albert Reynolds, the former Irish Prime Minister. He said that Adams had advised him that he was about to make a new cease-fire appeal to the IRA leadership. "I am now satisfied Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein will seek an early reinstatement of the cease-fire which, of course, has not broken down in Northern Ireland. I see a set of similar elements to those in 1994, which brought about the cease-fire, now coming together. Everyone must now compromise," Mr. Reynolds said.

The IRA on Saturday told the British Broadcasting Corporation that its military council had called a meeting to examine the agenda for the Northern Ireland talks.

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