IRA puts a bomb under peace talks peace talks

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The Irish peace process received a sharp blow and a significant boost in quick succession yesterday, when an ominous IRA statement was followed by a sign of overwhelming Protestant approval for talks with Sinn Fein.

Most worryingly for the British and Irish governments, the IRA calmly announced that it "would have problems with" the Mitchell principles of commitment to non-violence and democracy, which Sinn Fein formally accepted on Tuesday.

The six principles pledge a commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations, a renunciation of the use of force and agreement to abide by the terms of any new agreement reached in the negotiations.

The IRA statement, made in an interview in the publication Republican News, appeared to provide strong evidence to back up Unionist complaints that Sinn Fein's pledge was no more than an empty formula. Sinn Fein quickly declared that the party was "committed to totally democratic and peaceful means in the search for peace" and that "Sinn Fein is not the IRA and speaks for itself."

But few across the political spectrum were prepared to accept the proposition that Sinn Fein and the IRA were completely separate entities, and that one section of the republican movement could proclaim its pacifism while the other specifically reserved the right to return to violence.

The almost universal view in political and security circles is that Sinn Fein and the IRA are inextricably linked, with a common political direction and significant dual membership. The statement may have been designed to reassure IRA hardliners that Sinn Fein's endorsement of the Mitchell principles did not mean the terrorist organisation had formally renounced violence forever.

On one reading it was little more than a statement of the obvious, given that the organisation has made clear that its ceasefire, declared in mid-July, is complete but not permanent. But it can be taken as indicating a cavalier attitude to formal pledges.

Its timing was seen as particularly unhelpful to those within David Trimble's Ulster Unionists who are arguing that the party should go into the multi- party talks when they reconvene in Belfast on Monday.

A key meeting of the party executive is to be held in Belfast tomorrow. Although it will not have decision-making powers on the issue, it will have a significant influence on the party leadership's decision. The IRA comment is thus seen as either deliberately provocative or, at best, indifferent to the concerns of Unionists at a sensitive time.

But the party decision is also likely to be influenced by the near-sensational findings of a new opinion poll, which appears to show that an overwhelming majority of Unionists favour entry into talks.

The poll, carried out by the Belfast Telegraph, in association with the Rowntree Trust and others, found that no fewer than 93 per cent of Ulster Unionist Party supporters favoured staying in the talks. The surprise at the strength of feeling uncovered by the poll was compounded by the fact that three-quarters of supporters of Reverend Ian Paisley felt that he too should stay in the talks.

He has already walked out of the proceedings, denouncing them as a dangerous sham. It is not clear whether the fact that 86 per cent of all Protestants want their representatives to be there will bring about a change of mind on Dr Paisley's part, but the figures will certainly make it very difficult for Mr Trimble to turn his back on the negotiations.

In the meantime, however, a shower of condemnation descended on the republican movement in the light of the comments of the IRA spokesman, who said: "What they [Sinn Fein] do is a matter for them. Their affirmation of these principles is quite compatible with their position.

"As to the IRA's attitude to the Mitchell principles per se, well, the IRA would have problems with sections of the Mitchell principles. But then the IRA is not a participant in these talks." He went on to reiterate the familiar position that decommissioning of IRA weapons is not to be expected this side of a political settlement.

A spokesman for the Northern Ireland Office said the comments were worrying, adding that if republicans dishonoured the Mitchell principles "they will be out of the negotiations." In Dublin, the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, said the comments were a matter of major concern.

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