IRA men help Sinn Fein vote 'yes'

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SINN FEIN yesterday took what one of its leaders described as "One of the boldest, most daring decisions of our political lives" by opting for involvement in a new Northern Ireland government.

A special ard-fheis (conference) voted overwhelmingly in favour of changing the party's decades-old constitution.

The change came about with the blessing of a number of IRA icons, in particular four members of the Balcombe Street gang, who were given a rapturous reception by the conference and were warmly embraced by the Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

The four had been released for the day from an Irish jail where they had recently been transferred after serving 23 years in England. Their record in the mid-Seventies encompassed around 16 killings, including those of seven people who died in the Guildford and Woolwich pub bombings of 1974.

The vote clears the way for Sinn Fein members, for the first time in their history, to take their seats in the new Belfast assembly which is to be established under the Good Friday agreement.

It was also made clear that Sinn Fein leaders such as Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness expected to be given seats in the new cross-party executive which will run the assembly. Unionists are expected to oppose such involvement, arguing that the IRA must first decommission its weaponry.

After almost six hours of debate in Dublin, 331 of the 350 delegates voted for changing the Sinn Fein constitution. The party also decided, by what was described as a vast majority, to call for a "Yes" vote in the two referendums, north and south, which are to be held on the agreement on 22 May.

Although the conference was always expected to back the agreement, the appearance of the Balcombe Street four set the occasion alight, personifying as it did the fact that under the accord all prisoners are to be released within a two-year period. One republican said of their welcome: "It wasn't a celebration of what they did. It was ... the sense that soldiers are coming home." One speaker said: "These men are our Mandelas."

The policy shift overturns what was regarded as a cardinal principle of republicanism. Jim Gibney, a Sinn Fein executive member, described it as "seismic, historic, a watershed".

In addition to the Balcombe Street unit, prisoners also appeared, released for the day, from other jails in both parts of Ireland. All made strong speeches in favour of the agreement.

An attempted mortar attack on a police station in Northern Ireland was seen as an attempt by a dissident faction of the IRA to destabilise Sinn Fein's involvement in the peace process. The attack aimed at the Royal Ulster Constabulary station at Belleek, Country Fermanagh, came the night before Sinn Fein's conference in Dublin yesterday. The missile missed its target and no one was injured.

Dublin debate, page 6

Leading article, page 14