Sinn Fein agrees pact to end the violence

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Sinn Fein yesterday formally signed up to principles of commitment to non-violence and democracy at a talks session in Belfast which was devoid of all Unionist presence.

The three main Unionist groupings and the two smaller loyalist organisations stayed away from the proceedings, at the multi-party talks at Stormont, signalling that most of them regarded the exercise as a sham. It was, however, presented by the British and Irish governments, and by Sinn Fein itself, as something of a watershed in Northern Ireland politics. The party formally subscribed to the six "Mitchell principles" formulated by the talks' chairman, the former US Senator George Mitchell.

These pledge a commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations, a renunciation of the use of force and agreement to abide by the terms of any new agreement reached in the negotiations.

The undertaking was given by Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president who led an eight-strong delegation into the talks and, when called upon by Senator Mitchell, affirmed his agreement with the principles. The day saw a political role reversal, in that Unionists have generally been inside the talks building while Sinn Fein was ritually refused admission.

In the long term, attention will be focused on whether the ceasefire declared by the IRA in July will hold. More immediately, however, all eyes will be on the Ulster Unionist party, which must now decide whether and how to join in the talks proper when they open on Monday.

Tony Blair, speaking in Brighton, said the Government would hold Sinn Fein to yesterday's declaration. He added: "Let us hope that at long last the ancient enmities of hatred and sectarianism can be laid to rest and the people of Northern Ireland can have the future they want and deserve."

In his comments to the talks session Mr Adams said: "We want to take all the guns out of Irish politics. We want a total demilitarisation of the situation and we want all prisoners released." He said he was disappointed that Unionist leaders were absent, and hoped that they would resume their role in talks.

The general assumption among talks participants is that the Ulster Unionists will not walk away from the negotiations, but will probably not sit down face to face with Sinn Fein. This means the most likely arrangement will be one of proximity talks, with discussions going on at one remove.

The Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginnis last night condemned a decision by the United States to stop deportation proceedings against six Irish nationals suspected of acting on behalf of the IRA. Janet Reno, the US Attorney General, responded to a formal request from Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State, who said suspension of the proceedings could advance the peace process in Northern Ireland. The six were Robert McErlean, Matthew Morrison, Gabriel Megahey, Brian Pearson, Noel Gaynor and Gerald McDade.