Irish head of state to visit west Belfast

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THE Irish President, Mary Robinson, is expected to visit republican areas of west Belfast today, amid fears in London and Dublin that Sinn Fein may hijack the occasion for propaganda purposes, writes Alan Murdoch.

The British and Irish governments have voiced concern over the security of the president and that of RUC officers escorting her into the heartland of IRA and Sinn Fein support.

Mrs Robinson has visited Northern Ireland several times since her election in 1990 but, as her first trip into an openly Republican area, this is the most sensitive politically by far. She is expected to meet representatives of 50 Belfast community organisations, including 10 groups from neighbouring loyalist areas, during a trip to the Whiterock Centre.

Most interest hangs on whether Mrs Robinson will meet the Sinn Fein president and former West Belfast MP, Gerry Adams, in Whiterock. The meeting may be claimed as a propaganda victory for Sinn Fein, but the political fall-out may be less now since no renewed all-party talks are expected before the autumn.

Her trip, which is being made on her own initiative, is seen in Dublin as redressing a perceived imbalance felt in some Catholic circles in the North about her sympathies. Mrs Robinson's visit to Warrington to convey Irish regret over the killing of two boys in an IRA bombing last March angered republicans, who claimed that less sympathy was shown for northern Catholics killed by loyalists and security forces.