Sinn Fein threatens protest over role at investment talks

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Sinn Fein plans to stage a protest outside the investment conference which opens in Belfast today unless the government upgrades the party's level of representation.

The republicans say they have received only a limited invitation to part of the two-day conference, describing this as discrimination and disfranchisement of their voters.

Several hundred overseas representatives are expected to attend the conference, which is to be addressed tonight by John Major. Two months ago, the Prime Minister announced his intention to stage the event as part of the Irish peace process.

There have since been criticisms that this was a hasty decision which means that some senior business and industrial figures will not be able to attend because of the short notice. According to one report, fewer than half of the 600 people invited have accepted.

The United States Commerce Secretary, Ron Brown, is flying to Belfast with Clinton administration officials and others, while participation is expected from Europe and the Far East. The government originally said Sinn Fein were not being invited, but re

v ersed this decision in the face of pressure from the US administration and from Irish-American sources. A decision to invite members of economic committees from Belfast and Londonderry meant six Sinn Fein councillors could attend.

Michael Ancram, the Northern Ireland Office minister, said yesterday that the government had not invited anybody as a party, so that Sinn Fein were being treated the same as everyone else. But Sinn Fein last night complained that the six councillors had been invited for only two and a half hours of the two-day conference.

Mitchel McLaughlin, a Sinn Fein councillor, said the six would be taking part in a lobby of those attending. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Sinn Fein representatives will actually go into the conference centre or boycott the proceedings. La

s t night there were signs of more American pressure on the government to allow them to spend longer at the event.

Mr McLaughlin said: "We wish to play the fullest possible role in the process, as we do intend to in the entire peace process. There is a fundamental principle involved here of parity of esteem."