Ministers poised to expel Sinn Fein from peace talks

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THE British and Irish governments are poised to suspend Sinn Fein from the multi-party talks because of the IRA's assumed involvement in two Belfast killings.

The issue dominated yesterday's talks, the first session in Dublin rather than Belfast, but the matter was unresolved last night. The Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, formally moved what is described as an indictment of Sinn Fein, citing the charge that it breached the Mitchell principles of non-violence.

This brought the scheduled business of the talks, consideration of new north-south links, to a halt. But after hours of argument the chairman, former US senator George Mitchell, had not uncovered enough common ground on how to deal with the charge. The talks are scheduled to reconvene this afternoon.

Last night the most likely outcome appeared to be exclusion of Sinn Fein until around 10 March, in line with the precedent of the Ulster Democratic Party, suspended after its parent organisation, the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association, admitted three killings.

Such a timetable would avoid complications arising from a possible visit to the US of the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, for St Patrick's Day celebrations on 17 March. He and other Sinn Fein leaders yesterday mounted a rearguard battle which helped delay resolution of the issue. The Republicans say their position is different to that of the UDP in that the UDA admitted killings, while the IRA has declared its truce is intact.

Sinn Fein says expulsion would be against natural justice, and that even temporary exclusion would endanger the peace process. Later Mr Adams said: "I am absolutely pissed off with trying to make this thing work and those who have no interest in making it work seize upon two men being killed to exploit it and bring this process down." As the talks were going on, four men were charged in Belfast in connection with the murder of Robert Dougan, one of the killings in contention.

It is understood Ms Mowlam advanced no fresh evidence against Sinn Fein, relying on last week's statement by the RUC Chief Constable, Ronnie Flanagan, that he believed the IRA was involved.

Last night the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, said he had received a personal assurance from Tony Blair that there was evidence of IRA involvement in the killings. He said he trusted Mr Blair's words.

Ulster's toll of violence

LOYALISTS were responsible for killing 13 people, and Republicans two people, between 20 July and 25 January, the Government said last night. The figures do not include the two murders in Belfast last week which police have linked to the IRA. The figures say loyalists were also responsible for 51 shootings, six bombings and 36 assaults; Republicans were said to be behind 20 bombings, 21 shootings, and 26 assaults.