Victory is near in campaign for a united Ireland, says McGuinness

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Martin McGuinness used an Easter Sunday address in the Irish Republic yesterday to proclaim that Sinn Fein had "entered the end phase" of its campaign for Irish unity.

Mr McGuinness, Northern Ireland's Minister for Education, said at a republican rally in Co Donegal that he honestly believed the party was on the "final lap" in the journey towards a united Ireland.

His assertion was echoed by other Sinn Fein leaders, including the party president, Gerry Adams, who said that a historical tide was flowing in the direction of Irish unity.

Mr Adams called for Unionists to be accommodated in "a shared Ireland, an inclusive Ireland," saying he did not want them "to be politically drowned in a sea of nationalism".

The concerted republican attempt to place Irish unity on the political agenda has already been attacked by Unionist politicians, who claim it is an attempt to alarm and dispirit an already demoralised Unionist community.

The emphasis on Irish unity is part of the Sinn Fein campaign for the Irish general election, which is expected in May. It is part of a republican attempt to present Sinn Fein as the party of idealism in contrast to what Mr McGuinness described as the "corruption, sleaze, mismanagement and neglect" of political parties in the Republic.

The major southern parties have ruled out any question of coalition with Sinn Fein, saying the party is unacceptable in government so long as it is linked with the IRA. Sinn Fein has responded that it acknowledges the Irish army as the official army of the state.

However, evidence of another military organisation was unmistakably on show in Stranorlar, Donegal, as Mr McGuinness marched through the town behind a militaristic colour party.

He walked just yards behind a dozen marching men in khaki tunics and trousers and army-style boots. The men, who wore black berets and dark glasses, responded to orders called out by one of their number.

In his speech, Mr McGuinness said: "More and more people are recognising that we have entered the end phase of our struggle. I earnestly believe that we have begun the countdown to a united Ireland. There is much work to do but we believe that we are in the home stretch."

Republicans, meanwhile, continued to deny claims from security sources that the IRA was responsible for the recent break-in at Special Branch offices in Belfast.

Four men and two women were arrested in Belfast and Londonderry on Saturday. One of them is Bobby Storey, a senior republican who has been to prison for IRA offences.

Denying IRA involvement in the incident, republicans pointed out that the retiring Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, had several days ago described the break-in as "an inside job".