Sinn Fein ban fails to please either side

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SINN FEIN was barred yesterday from the Irish multi-party talks for the next two weeks. The long-awaited move drew protests from both Unionists and republicans - Unionists because they wanted permanent exclusion, and republicans because they wanted no expulsion at all.

The British and Irish governments, in excluding Sinn Fein until 9 March, seemed at the same time concerned to act as leniently as possible. It has been clear for some time that Sinn Fein would be penalised following two recent IRA killings, but London and Dublin have given the impression that the measure would be taken with reluctance.

Both governments had concluded that Sinn Fein had to go, but both want to have them back in to participate in negotiations as the talks approach their May deadline. The Irish foreign minister, David Andrews, paid tribute to Sinn Fein's "valuable contribution" to the talks.

The Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, said contact with Sinn Fein would be maintained during its absence. She added: "There is little time left now until May. Both governments are determined to work with the parties in the coming six weeks. We want as many parties as possible, including Sinn Fein, to have their opportunity to contribute."

The decision was condemned by Sinn Fein's president, Gerry Adams, who said he was seeking urgent meetings with Tony Blair and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. Sinn Fein has abandoned its attempt in the Dublin High Court to obtain a legal restraint on the governments.

Describing the current situation as a crisis and "a huge setback" for the peace process, Mr Adams declared: "The decision is disgraceful. The process by which it was reached lacks any notion of natural justice. Sinn Fein is out, but Sinn Fein is not down."

He said there was palpable anger in nationalist areas, and added: "I appeal to everyone to channel their anger and frustration at today's decision into calm and disciplined protest."

There have already been signs of an increased security force presence around some nationalist areas in anticipation of possible protests and street disturbances.

By contrast, the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, said the decision marked a new low in the process. He added: "The credibility of the Government is being squandered and if it has any honour left it must feel very soiled today."

Just as Sinn Fein are being sent off the field, the Ulster Democratic party is to be allowed back on from next Monday, following a period of suspension imposed after three killings by its paramilitary associates, the Ulster Defence Association.

The UDP negotiator David Adams said: "We would be seriously concerned at the fact that the governments have seen fit not only to specify a date for Sinn Fein, which they failed to do for us, but also that that date means that in fact Sinn Fein's time out of the process is far less than ours.

"This would seem to indicate that the two governments seem to value some lives more than others, and is a clear indication of double standards for republicans and loyalists."