Unionists' historic encounter with Sinn Fein

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The Ulster Unionist Party is likely to come face to face with Sinn Fein for the first time in more than half a century in the Stormont talks early next week.

The encounter promises to be more of a confrontation than a conciliation, since the agenda item is likely to be a Unionist motion to have the republicans expelled on the grounds that they continue to espouse violence.

None the less, it will carry a powerful symbolic charge in that the hope of the Government and others is that early clashes may eventually lead on to the two sides doing serious business.

The scene for the meeting was set on Wednesday, when after much initial hesitation the Unionists walked into the Stormont talks where Sinn Fein had already taken their place. Their party leader David Trimble (pictured) said then that he had come not to negotiate with republicans but to confront them.

It will come as a major surprise if the Unionist indictment of Sinn Fein succeeds and the republicans are expelled. One part of the Unionist case is that the IRA must have had some involvement in the bomb in the County Armagh town of Markethill on Tuesday.

Security sources judge, however, that the attack was almost certainly the work of the Continuity Army Council, which has no connection to the IRA. Sinn Fein will however face intense interrogation on the IRA's declaration that it "has problems with" the Mitchell principles of non-violence. The Ulster Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson said no final decision had been taken on the party's tactics, but added: "However we did give a commitment that we would confront Sinn Fein as appropriate, and there is no better issue to confront them with than the question of their links with the IRA."

Meanwhile, a further reminder that the entire republican community is not behind Sinn Fein's approach to the peace process came when another splinter group, the Irish National Liberation Army, staged an attack on a police station late on Thursday night. A grenade thrown at Rosemount RUC station in Londonderry failed to explode, and was later found on a bank outside the heavily fortified base.

-- David McKittrick,

Ireland Correspondent