Election '97: Bruton attacks Sinn Fein vote

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The election in Northern Ireland finally flared into something resembling life yesterday when the Irish Taoiseach, John Bruton, told the electorate that a vote for Sinn Fein would amount to a vote for the IRA.

Condemning recent IRA violence, Mr Bruton declared: "It would be hypocritical to pretend that a vote for Sinn Fein is anything other than a vote of support for the IRA because they are part of the one movement." The Irish prime minister was speaking after meeting SDLP leader John Hume and the party's three other MPs in Dublin.

His remarks drew a quick response from Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, who said he was "absolutely and totally wrong." He said Sinn Fein had taken huge risks for peace and called for Mr Bruton to withdraw his comments.

The high-profile meeting also involved several senior Irish ministers. Mr Bruton has traditionally been a stern opponent of Sinn Fein, but he may also have been indicating concern that the republicans could do well in the election.

Republican sources claim that the election is going well for them in three constituencies, where Sinn Fein leaders Mr Adams, Martin McGuinness and Pat Doherty as standing for election. A successful election for Sinn Fein would concern Dublin as much as it would worry London.

Calling on the IRA to declare an early ceasefire Mr Bruton declared: "The cause of peace is never served by failing to tell the truth or engaging in hypocrisy." He went on: "People who exercise their right to support them [the IRA] must also understand what they are doing."

The Taoiseach said that an opportunity for peace "just about still exists," but added that every act of IRA violence made it more difficult to believe that any new ceasefire would be truly unequivocal.