Sinn Fein returns to the fold: Britain quibbles, but Dublin hails a historic handshake as a new beginning, writes David McKittrick

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The Independent Online
THE HANDSHAKE between an Irish taoiseach and a Sinn Fein leader which took place in Dublin yesterday was hailed as a historic milestone in the Irish peace process.

The meeting between Albert Reynolds and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein, the first time since the Irish Civil War period in the 1920s that such an event has taken place, was viewed in Irish political circles as a momentous entry for the IRA and Sinn Fein into legitimate politics.

Together with the SDLP leader, John Hume, the two men issued a joint statement which said: 'We are at the beginning of a new era in which we are all totally and absolutely committed to democratic and peaceful methods of resolving our political problems.'

But even as the world watched, the British and Irish governments remained at odds on the question of whether the IRA's campaign was really over, and on how republicans should now be treated.

Downing Street remained impassive and was still examining the statement last night to judge whether it conveyed the 'permanent' cessation of violence commitment it has demanded.

While striving to convey a continuing positive tone towards the ceasefire, No 10 resisted calls for an immediate response. A spokesman said: 'We want to look at the statement very closely.'

Earlier a Downing Street meeting of senior ministers had reiterated the Government's position that the IRA had to show by 'words and deeds' that its ceasefire was permanent.

But at another meeting at No 10, John Major took decisive action to stamp on what he views as highly damaging interventions in the peace process by the Rev Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.

The Prime Minister ejected Mr Paisley from No 10, abruptly terminating a meeting within minutes, after the DUP leader three times refused to declare unequivocally that he accepted Mr Major's word that there had been no secret deal with the IRA to secure the ceasefire.

The lowest point of sourness in relations between the two comes against a background of commentary from Mr Paisley suggesting the Prime Minister had lied on the crucial question. Sources made it clear that the Prime Minister saw it as a critical issue, designed to undermine his credibility, that had to be addressed: 'You can't have an elected representative going around saying what the Prime Minister says is untrue, a lie, a con.'

The Irish Government is plainly exasperated by the British attitude, believing as it does that Sinn Fein's entry into politics should be made as easy as possible. The meeting between the Irish Foreign Minister, Dick Spring, and the Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, in Belfast on Monday night failed to close the gap between the governments.

As well as diverging on the main issue, Dublin has also been irritated by Britain's refusal to lift the exclusion order keeping Mr Adams out of Britain, the continuing British opposition to an American visa for him and by the Government's insistence on having the Army re-close several border roads reopened by protesters.

Unionist spokesmen took exception to the Dublin ceremony, describing it as an outrage and saying it should not have been contemplated at this early stage. One Ulster Unionist said it had been arranged in 'indecent, obscene haste'. One purpose of yesterday's meeting was to discuss arrangements for the forum which Mr Reynolds hopes to open in Dublin before the end of October. Sinn Fein and other Irish Nationalist parties are to attend, together with the moderate Alliance Party from Northern Ireland, but Unionist parties will boycott it.

Reports circulating in Dublin and Belfast suggest that the British Government line on the ceasefire has been taken at the insistence of Sir Patrick Mayhew. The Irish government is worried that taking a hard line against Sinn Feinwould endanger the opportunities for peace and perhaps undermine the position of Mr Adams.

Senior sources in London, however, say that there is an excellent and close working relationship between Mr Major and Mr Reynolds, both of whom are devoting most of their time to detailed 'hands-on' management of the peace process.

THEY HANDLED it pretty well, this little moment in history, this moment with its possibility of new beginnings, of new directions in Irish history.

They were suitably grave as they came down the ornate steps of the Taoiseach's office, with its elaborate entrance and its grand columns.

Albert Reynolds, the Taoiseach, shook the hand of Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, then they both shook the hand of John Hume, leader of the SDLP, who had helped to bring them together. Mr Reynolds, in his familiar persona of a brisk, no-nonsense businessman, might have been closing a deal with a commercial partner. Mr Adams, whose party has not been officially welcomed by the Dublin government for 25 years, exuded the personal dignity which so infuriates his opponents.

Not so long ago Mr Reynolds viewed Mr Adams as a subversive, while the Sinn Fein leader thought of the Irish government as quislings and the puppets of Britain.

It was a moment in history, but there are so many precedents of welcoming violent prodigals into politics that the Irish reckon they know instinctively how to deal with such happenings. The drill is not to stand on ceremony or dwell on formalities but to get the miscreants in before they change their minds.

Mr Reynolds's Fianna Fail party went through just such a transformation in the Twenties and Thirties. At least two of his predecessors as Fianna leader and Taoiseach were intimately acquainted with Mausers and Lee-Enfield rifles before rising to the top in Irish politics. One of them described Fianna Fail as 'a slightly constitutional party'.

Only six days after the IRA laid down its arms, Mr Adams has been accepted into the political fold in nationalist Ireland, an event marked by this unprecedented handshake. But this being Ireland, and this being such a protracted and painful peace process, the meeting was also a symbol of discord.

David Trimble, of the Ulster Unionists, said it was held in 'indecent, obscene haste', while the British Government still officially regards Sinn Fein as an only slightly constitutional party.

So this historic moment still left the question of when London will agree with Dublin that the IRA's 25-year war is over.

Paisley row, page 2

Leading article, letters, page 17

(Photograph omitted)