After the IRA, Sinn Fein's London move

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On a day of London chaos caused by IRA bomb scares, Sinn Fein, the terrorist group's political wing, yesterday announced that it was planning a move to Westminster.

Martin McGuinness, who is the Sinn Fein candidate in Mid-Ulster and stands a good chance of winning, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that his party expected to win three seats in the new Parliament

"We are prepared to go to Westminster. We are prepared to represent our people, and I think we will be able to do that quite effectively," Mr McGuinness said. It is understood that Sinn Fein is planning to open an office in London as part of political drive to raise the party's profile at Westminster.

He said that the party was very very hopeful that there would be three MPs elected - himself, Gerry Adams in West Belfast, and Pat Doherty, in West Tyrone - with a "very strong mandate".

While that did not mean that they would take their places in the Commons - an action banned by the party constitution - he said they would be making a move to London.

Vast areas of London were girdlocked yesterday after a fresh series of IRA bomb threats closed key roadways, railway stations and airports in the South-east.

Hundreds of thousands of travellers had to endure hours of delays in the capital's worst ever traffic jam. The IRA again used the tactic of "maximum disruption, minimum risk" with a spate of early morning coded bomb warnings. Unlike Friday's attack in which two devices exploded in Leeds and Doncaster, yesterday's operation was a hoax and no bombs were found.

At the height of the morning rush hour alert Paddington, King's Cross, St Pancras, Baker Street and Charing Cross mainline and tube stations were closed and the surrounding areas evacuated.

On the M25 there was a 10-mile jam and routes into the London from the west were gridlocked.

Gatwick, part of Heathrow, Luton, and Stansted airports were also closed. There were also bomb alerts at Dover harbour and the busy Watford junction rail station.

The success of the IRA's disruptive tactics has raised fears that the terrorists may target polling day next week. Last night, David Veness, the Metropolitan Police's assistant commissioner with responsibility for specialist operations, revealed that anti-terrorist plans have been drawn up to try and prevent voting disruption on 1 May. He acknowledged that the general election represented a "significant security challenge", but said he was confident that it could be protected.

While declining to provide details Mr Veness said police had been planning how to combat any threat for a considerable period. He rejected suggestions that the emergency services over-reacted to yesterday's threats, stressing that they had to err on the side of caution.

Mr McGuinness said in yesterday's radio interview that there was no question of Sinn Fein MPs swearing or affirming allegiance to the Queen, a statutory requirement for all MPs wishing to sit, speak and vote in the Commons.

"And we don't recognise the right of the British Government to rule over this part of Ireland. Republican sources in Northern Ireland say that any Sinn Fein MPs can be expected to travel to London more frequently than did party president Gerry Adams during his 1983-92 spell as MP for West Belfast.

Sinn Fein has for over a decade been in the business of digging itself into the political system, and probably has more offices scattered over Northern Ireland than any of the other more conventional parties. There are also offices in various parts of the Irish Republic while in recent years others have opened in Washington and Brussels.

But the Sinn Fein constitution strictly forbids participation at Westminster, with candidates required to take the following oath: "I ... freely and solemnly declare that if elected I will not sit in, nor take part in, the proceedings of the Westminster or partitionist six-county parliaments."

This requirement could only be removed by a two-thirds vote at a Sinn Fein ard-fheis (annual conference) and there are no signs that the party is gearing up to abolish a tradition of abstentionism which extends back for decades.

Within those bounds, however, the republicans have for more than a decade adopted a more participative approach. This has seen them both contesting any and all elections and in holding meetings with almost any person or element which seeks contact with them.

According to one republican source: "It makes sense for Sinn Fein to consciously try to build relationships with parties, to win friends and be prepared to argue adn debate with anybody."

South-east chaos, page 4