and JOHN RENTOUL
Sinn Fein yesterday moved closer to participating in May elections for the proposed Northern Ireland forum, but doubts emerged as to whether the Social Democratic and Labour Party would join in after its deputy leader warned that Unionists may use the forum to delay all-party negotiations.
The Sinn Fein annual conference in Dublin approved an emergency motion from the party's executive giving the leadership the final say on whether to fight the elections.
Meanwhile, Tony Blair hit out yesterday at Labour MPs who expressed open support for Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA. The Labour leader described backbencher John Austin-Walker's attendance at the conference as "wrong and foolish". And he dissociated himself from a greetings message from five Labour MPs, including Peter Hain, who is an Opposition whip in the Commons.
"People have differing views on Northern Ireland, but the frontbench position is clear," a spokesman for Mr Blair said. "Attending the conference, while there is no ceasefire, is wrong and foolish."
Mr Austin-Walker, MP for Woolwich, won loud applause from delegates in a surprise appearance on the platform when he said: "I understand the anger and frustration felt by the nationalist community in the face of delay after delay, as a weak British Prime Minister has prevaricated and placed obstacles in the way of talks."
He accused John Major of "pandering" to Ulster Unionists to keep his majority at Westminster. Mr Austin-Walker said he recognised Sinn Fein had a democratic mandate, because it represents more than one-third of the nationalist community in Ulster. "Those citizens who voted for Sinn Fein had no part in Canary Wharf and yet they are disenfranchised and not allowed a voice in the peace talks. There can be no justification for excluding Sinn Fein or any party that has a democratic mandate from all- party talks," he said.
Sinn Fein's President, Gerry Adams, said his personal preference was to boycott both the elections and the forum they will elect, but argued that "real world" considerations might make this impractical.
Privately party leaders indicated that a boycott was only considered an option if this also became the policy of the other main nationalist party, the SDLP. Sinn Fein executive member Martin McGuinness said the party should discuss with the SDLP a joint policy of not participating in the elections or the body.
The SDLP deputy leader, Seamus Mallon, underlined his party's reservations about the forum. He told Irish radio he was "seriously concerned" that Unionists might use it "as a bolt hole" from which to stall all-party talks when their negotiating tactics failed.
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