Election '97 : Hume offers 'best chance for peace'

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The Social Democratic and Labour Party launched its manifesto in Belfast yesterday, contending that support for the party represented the best chance of a post-election revival of the peace process.

The party leader John Hume laid claim to having shaped much of the political agenda of the past two decades, and appealed for a mandate for his continuing efforts to bring about peace.

Taking as an example Mid-Ulster, where the SDLP is fighting the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, he asked: "What is the choice in Mid-Ulster? Sectarianism and bigotry as represented by the DUP; violence and the killing of human beings as represented by Sinn Fein; or peace and agreement as represented by the SDLP. That is the choice."

The SDLP presently holds four of the 18 Northern Ireland seats. Three of these look safe for the party, but in West Belfast, always a marginal, Dr Joe Hendron faces a strong challenge from the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams.

Another close contest between the parties is taking place in West Tyrone, a new constituency which has a nationalist majority.

Many SDLP members were worried by the Sinn Fein performance in last year's elections to the Northern Ireland forum, when the republicans achieved a record 15.5 per cent of the vote.

SDLP workers say they are particularly targeting nationalists who last year switched to Sinn Fein in the hope of encouraging the peace process.

Mr Hume said extremists on both sides were promoting sectarianism in order to polarise opinion for electoral purposes.

He added: "The burning of churches on both sides of our community is a dreadful and appalling act of sectarianism which offends the basic principles of the vast majority of people."

Mr Hume's deputy, Seamus Mallon, was noticeably more aggressive in his attitude towards Sinn Fein. He declared: "Everybody here knows there is an end to violence coming. How many more people have to die before they have the courage to bring it about? How many more people have to go to jail for the best part of their lives before that certainty is brought to fruition?"

Mr Mallon has recently come under attack from republicans accusing him of being less enthusiastic about the peace process than his party leader. He responded yesterday: "I and others in the SDLP have been working for peace for 25 years. What were they doing, Mr Adams and Martin McGuinness, during that 25 years - that's a question worth posing."

Although the peace process is regarded as being in suspension during the election campaign, Mr Hume revealed that he had met Mr Adams only a few weeks ago. He signalled, however, that his patience was not endless, declaring: "If it becomes clear that the dialogue is not going to bring an end to violence, the SDLP will get on with the political talks."

If the talks produced agreement this should be put to the Irish people, north and south, for endorsement by referendum. If accepted, there would then be no conceivable justification for violence or the existence of the IRA, he said.

The SDLP leader added: "I would have thought it would be better to end their violence completely, join in that process, have an input into it, rather than be left out and have the Irish people come out on the one day and tell them they are totally opposed to what you are doing."