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Sinn Fein to fight expulsion

SINN FEIN leaders last night mounted an 11th hour legal bid to prevent their ejection from the Northern Ireland multi-party talks in the wake of the two killings last week for which the IRA was blamed.

Describing the British government's indictment of the IRA as "vague" and "entirely inadequate", Sinn Fein complained that the "paucity of information" impaired its ability to refute the government's points. The party's national chairman, Mitchel McLaughlin, said last night: "We will be in court in the morning."

While temporary expulsion remains the most likely eventual outcome, the republicans have extracted maximum advantage from the proceedings. They have held centre stage and broadened the debate beyond the two Belfast killings, publicly and forcefully pressing arguments against their expulsion, and winning some backing among nationalists.

In doing so - despite the fact that the IRA was blamed by the chief constable of the RUC - Sinn Fein has spread doubt over whether it was responsible for the killings. Meanwhile, however, the three men charged with one of the two killings at the centre of the dispute, have been accepted into a Maze prison H-block exclusively reserved for IRA members.

Some Irish voices say that while the IRA may be responsible for these killings, loyalist violence has been on an even greater scale, and that the peace process would be better served by allowing Sinn Fein to remain.

While it is scarcely conceivable that the Irish government could diverge from the British position, Dublin is being careful to cover itself against criticism that it is relying too heavily on the word of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, a force much criticised by nationalists.

The Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, has already said he received personal assurances from his British counterpart, Tony Blair, on the strength of the evidence.

Yesterday in the Dail, Mr Ahern prepared to row in with the RUC chief constable's advice. He said police chiefs south of the border had consulted the RUC on the evidence relating to the two Belfast murders. He said while the gardai were not involved in any scientific analysis, they had been satisfied there was a case to answer.

Members of Irish opposition parties who met David Trimble at the Dail yesterday during an historic visit by the Ulster Unionist leader said afterwards: "The impression we got from Trimble and his people was that they acknowledge Sinn Fein would be back [in the talks] within a couple of weeks."

The talks at Dublin Castle are due to continue today.