US lifts ban on Sinn Fein contacts

THE US government is lifting a 20-year ban on official contacts with Sinn Fein, it was announced yesterday as the party's leader Gerry Adams began a three-day visit to Washington. But Mr Adams will not be received at the White House during his current fortnight-long stay in the US.

In a warm and friendly letter to Mr Adams yesterday, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake said the decision had been taken 'in the light of the historic announcement' of the August ceasefire, 'and the peace brought about by the IRA over the last month'.

Mr Lake carefully sidestepped the row over whether the ceasefire is 'permanent', but Washington's intention of continuing to foster a resolution of the Irish conflict shone through the semantics. The US hoped the ceasefire would remain 'for good and irreversible', and that it could help persuade 'others who use and support violence to cease to do so' - a clear reference to loyalist extremist groups.

The statement came just 24 hours before the first such contact: a session between Mr Adams and high ranking National Security Council and State Department officials, only finalised after convoluted negotiations which saw Mr Adams at one point threaten a boycott if he was not being accorded equal treatment with other Northern Ireland delegations who have visited Washington lately.

News of the lifting of the ban on contacts was conveyed to the Sinn Fein leader in a personal phone call from Vice President Al Gore, who last month held meetings with the SDLP leader John Hume and a delegation of Ulster Unionist MPs.

However that phone call, and the Lake letter, are as near as Mr Adams will get to the White House itself, at least on this visit. Today's talks with a team led by the National Security Council's Irish affairs specialist Nancy Soderberg, Mr Gore's national security adviser Leon Fuerth, and a senior European specialist at the State Department, will take place at the State Department.

Mr Adams began his visit yesterday by lunching with a delegation of Republican senators headed by New York's Alphonse D'Amato. Later, he was due to attend a Capitol Hill reception with Congressional associations involved in Irish affairs, and afterwards to appear on CNN's Larry King Live programme for a debate with the Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginnis.

Today he is to address the National Press Club, before his meeting with the National Security Council and State Department officials.

Three men were recovering in hospital in Belfast yesterday after being attacked by loyalist and IRA punishment squads.

A 21-year-old was beaten in the republican Ardoyne area by five masked men who forced their way into his home and set about him, then drove him off to another beating. The man suffered a broken arm and injuries to his legs and body.

In loyalist areas, a 34-year-old man was shot in both legs in Lisburn, Co Antrim, and a 29-year-old was shot in one leg in north Belfast last night.

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