Sinn Fein chiefs bask in glory of being MPs for the day

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The Independent Online
Colin Brown

Chief Political Correspondent

As a day out, Gerry Adams yesterday could recommend his visit to the House of Commons. "Thank you," he told Philip Wright, the assistant Serjeant- at-Arms, who acted as his minder, "it is the most restful period I've had for 25 years."

Having refused to swear the oath of allegiance to the Queen, Mr Adams and Martin McGuinness could not take their seats in the Commons, or draw their salaries as MPs.

However, they were given their run of the building to enjoy the facilities for 24 hours, before the Speaker's ruling comes into effect denying them the privileges of MPs in the Palace of Westminster.

They were shown the Chamber by Tony Benn, the veteran Labour MP, and the seats they might have occupied had they been prepared to say the oath, even with their fingers crossed, like Tony Banks.

As MPs for the day, the Sinn Fein president and his chief negotiator were each issued with House of Commons photo-passes, bearing the distinctive three green stripes accorded to Members, which entitled them to roam at will, without the inconvenience of having to go through the anti-terrorist bomb check at the entrance to the Commons.

They did not take advantage of the House of Commons barber for a quick trim, and thought it wise to avoid the MPs' rifle range, but they availed themselves of the subsidised canteen. Sitting on the MPs' side of a partition in the oak-lined Strangers' Cafeteria, Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness sat down to a lunch of fried haddock at pounds 2.25 with parmentier potatoes (35p) and swede (35p) and extra helpings of potatoes for 35p. The Sinn Fein president splashed out on a small bottle of Cotes du Rhone 1995 red wine for pounds 1.85, while Mr McGuinness had a can of Coke for 35p.

After 40 minutes, they went out for a stroll on the terrace of the House of Commons, overlooking the Thames. They spent 15 minutes in deep conversation, only breaking off to ask when the ITN film crew would turn up to film them from Westminster Bridge.

A pack of news reporters followed their every step, including waiting outside the gents. When he re-emerged, Mr Adams was asked for an autograph by one of the constituents in a party following the Tory MP Piers Merchant.

"How can you speak to him?" said one of her friends.

"How dare he say hello to me," said another.

Mr Adams continued on his charm offensive with the fourth press conference of the day on the steps of the Commons. "We didn't come here for concessions. We came here for our rights, and to assert our rights. We are pleased with what we have achieved today."

They had to raise their voices to be heard above a Bible-puncher with a bowler hat, who bellowed out readings from the Old Testament. It was not Ian Paisley, but the Unionist leader was clearly there in spirit.

Mr Adams today will be responding in detail to the keynote speech on Northern Ireland by Tony Blair. Mr McGuinness, meanwhile, is preparing to lead a Sinn Fein delegation to meet government officials. But their immediate target is the local elections in Northern Ireland tomorrow, which provided the real backdrop for the day trip to the Commons.