British Leader to Invite Sinn Fein for a Visit

Blair tries to kickstart N. Ireland peace talks

In what may be the most significant attempt to move forward the stalled Northern Ireland peace process, British Prime Minister Tony Blair will welcome Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to 10 Downing Street before the end of the year.

Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam, confirming that the meeting would take place before Christmas, said that if republicans are not treated "as if they are serious, you are making it much more likely that they will go back to violence."

The last republican leader to meet a British prime minister at Downing Street was Michael Collins nearly 75 years ago, when the treaty of Irish independence was signed.

News of the meeting was given a warm welcome by the Irish government. Dublin has been concerned that a lack of progress at peace talks in Belfast could threaten the Irish Republican Army's latest cease-fire.

This week in Dublin, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said both he and Mr. Blair were "conscious of the need to generate momentum."

To ease some of the republicans' concerns, legislation will be rushed through the Irish Parliament before the end of the year to facilitate the transfer of Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners from British jails.

Good-faith gestures

Britain has also been making conciliatory gestures to republicans, with last week's pullout of 500 British soldiers from Northern Ireland.

And on Wednesday of this week, Britain ended daylight military patrols on the streets of Catholic west Belfast, which for years had been the battleground for the IRA's violent protests against London rule.

The acknowledgment that Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, is a legitimate participant at the peace negotiations has met with criticism from pro-British unionists.

An 'insult' to unionists

David Trimble, leader of the powerful Ulster Unionist Party, predicts a return to violence, with "uniformed militarists" within the IRA gaining the upper hand.

And the Rev. Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party has warned Blair of the "insult" to the victims of IRA violence resulting from any London meeting with Mr. Adams.

Mr. Paisley also reminded the British prime minister of the last time republicans came to 10 Downing Street. Seven years ago, the IRA launched a mortar bomb into the rear garden while then Prime Minister John Major was discussing the Gulf War with senior colleagues. No one was injured in the attack.

But times have changed. And in the aftermath of last July's renewed IRA cease-fire, Blair and Adams had a brief meeting in Belfast.

Image of changing times

However, The Irish News, Northern Ireland's leading nationalist newspaper, observed, "It is difficult to imagine a more powerful image of the transformation in republican politics" than a Downing Street meeting between the two men.

Adams is likely to be accompanied to the meeting by Sinn Fein spokesman and fellow Member of Parliament Martin McGuinness.

Last weekend, Mr. McGuinness said that republican leaders "recognize that the road to bring about a peace settlement is going to be a rocky, bumpy one."

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