SDLP says no to poll deal with Sinn Fein

SINN FEIN is seeking an electoral pact with the fellow nationalists of the Social Democratic and Labour Party in the impending elections for the Northern Ireland assembly.

At the same time, the party president, Gerry Adams, is urging David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party to begin talks, saying it was the wish of the electorate that the parties which campaigned for a Yes vote in last week's referendum should take part in "inclusive dialogue".

The Sinn Fein initiatives came on a Bank Holiday which saw the first manoeuvres take place in the campaign for seats in the new assembly.

However, its approaches to the SDLP met with initial lukewarm reaction. Asked about a suggested pact, John Hume said: "The objective of this election isn't pacts between two parties on one side of the divide - the objective is a partnership between the representatives of all sections of the community."

SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon also dismissed electoral pacts as things of a partisan past.

He suggested instead the full tactical use of the proportional representation voting system to ensure that the parties behind the No campaign are prevented from getting sizeable numbers of seats, and the chance to destabilise the new assembly.

A single transferable voting system will be used for the poll. Under it voters will get a chance to stake their preference in descending order among six candidates in each constituency.

Mr Mallon said: "We will be asking people to give transfers to pro agreement parties depending on the complexion of the constituency. It could be that we will be asking people to transfer votes to the Ulster Unionists."

Sinn Fein also held out the intriguing possibility of its supporters using one of its six votes for the Ulster Unionists. One of the party's senior leaders, Pat Doherty, stated that "those who voted for change should pursue the logic" of voting for Mr Trimble's party.

The offer is seen as an inducement to the Ulster Unionists to begin talks with Sinn Fein. But Mr Trimble has resisted doing so as long as the IRA does not decommission its arms.

The row over decommissioning continued yesterday when the Canadian General in charge of promoting disarmament among paramilitary groups stated it would not be enough for these groups to simply allow guns to "rust in the ground".

And Northern Ireland minister Paul Murphy stated: "The peace agreement says that decommissioning is an indispensable part of this whole agreement.

However, a senior member of Sinn Fein, Alex Maskey ruled out early moves to hand over weapons. He added that in the long run his party was committed to a "total disarmament and demilitarisation off this whole society".

The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, warned that the British and Irish governments would "show no mercy" to anyone continuing to resort to terrorism.

In last night's Belfast Telegraph, Mr Blair wrote: "They will find themselves starved of the support they have had in the past - at home and overseas.

"And I can also guarantee that both ourselves the Irish government will show no mercy to anyone going back to violence. There will be no fudge between democracy and terror."

Mr Blair also paid tribute to those who voted in support of the peace agreement.

He said: "It always easier to say no to change. But fortunately there are political leaders who had the vision to see that the people of Northern Ireland had the opportunity of a different, better future."

The United States President, Bill Clinton, has already insisted paramilitaries would find no friends in America if they went back to the bomb and bullet.

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