Adams says the violence is finished

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The Independent Online
A DAY OF significant movement in the Irish peace process yesterday brought a potentially historic Sinn Fein declaration that violence should be "a thing of the past, over, done with and gone".

The declaration was closely followed by news that Unionist and Sinn Fein representatives would meet, in company with other parties, at Stormont on Monday. The developments, which were obviously carefully choreographed, are regarded as a breakthrough in the peace process.

The moves were precipitated by tomorrow's arrival in Belfast of President Bill Clinton, whose envoys have been exerting heavy pressure on the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, and the Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble. The White House had made it clear that Mr Clinton wished to take back to Washington something which could be presented as real progress in the peace process.

The statement from Mr Adams did not actually use the words "the war is over", which opponents of Sinn Fein have pressed for. Instead he declared: "The violence we have seen must be for all of us now a thing of the past, over, done with and gone."

The follow-up gesture from Mr Trimble, First Minister of the new Belfast assembly, did not go so far as agreeing to the handshake with Mr Adams which Sinn Fein has been urging for many months. Rather, Mr Trimble invited all parties to a business meeting to discuss the running of the assembly.

One close observer said: "This is a staged process which needs mutual reassurance. These events are designed to take a bit of the pain out of it."

The assumption is that, if all goes well, the republican and Unionist leaders will inch towards both progress on arms decommissioning and towards a handshake.

The Sinn Fein declaration was warmly welcomed by the British and Irish governments yesterday as a significant development.

Downing Street had been kept closely informed of the timing and content of the announcement, and Tony Blair will amplify his welcome in the Commons today when he makes a statement at the start of a debate on new anti-terrorist laws being rushed through Parliament in response to last month's Omagh bombing.

The announcement received a more cautious response from Mr Trimble, who said carefully crafted words were not enough - the weapons of terrorism must be destroyed and all forms of paramilitary violence must cease for good.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said last night that Sinn Fein's initiative confirmed Mr Blair in his view that it was now committed exclusively to peaceful means.

"This should help to build confidence and break down barriers of mistrust, it will strengthen the agreement and bring the communities closer together," Downing Street said. "Omagh seems to have had the opposite effect intended by the bombers."

In his statement, Mr Adams said everyone must work politically to make sure the "appalling" Omagh bombing - carried out by the Real IRA - was "the last violent incident in our country". And he pledged: "Sinn Fein is committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means to achieve a way forward ... We are committed to making conflict a thing of the past. There is a shared responsibility to removing the causes and to achieving an end to all conflict."

Although Mr Trimble has repeatedly pressed for a republican declaration that "the war is over", signs suggest that long-standing Unionist demands for the decommissioning of weapons remain highly contentious within IRA and Sinn Fein circles. Many grassroots supporters are strongly opposed to any hand-over, and it was therefore seen as more likely that a concession from republicans to take the peace process forward would come in the form of rhetoric.

Tory reaction to the Sinn Fein statement was lukewarm. "Words are welcome, but it is not the same as giving up their weapons," said a Conservative spokesman. "The lesson to learn from Omagh is that public safety is still at risk."

Blair offers concessions;

Boost for Clinton, page 2

Leading article, Review, page 3

Conrad Russell,

Review, page 4