Serious clashes between police and republican protesters marred John Major's visit to Northern Ireland yesterday and threatened a serious new setback in the search for peace.
The Prime Minister's visit, designed to bolster the peace process and emphasise his commitment to it, ran into trouble in Londonderry, where a number of people were injured. The disturbances forced Mr Major to postpone his visit to the city for several hours.
The Prime Minister was asked whether next Wednesday's meeting between a government minister and republicans would go ahead as scheduled. He replied: "Let us see what Sinn Fein has to say. Let us see whether they will unequivocally denounce what has happened this afternoon or not. When we have that sort of information, I can make a cool and balanced judgement about whether it is practicable for those talks to go ahead."
What had begun as a policing problem thus instantly assumed heavy political overtones. Last night some in government circles believed Mr Major's words did not mean next week's ground-breaking talks are contingent on Sinn Fein offering an unequivocal denunciation. But there was no absolute confidence that the Prime Minister had spoken rhetorically. Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, will have an opportunity to reply to Mr Major at Westminster today when he holds a press conference on the peace process.
The trouble flared as more than one hundred demonstrators, including a number of prominent Sinn Fein members, gathered in Londonderry to await Mr Major's arrival at a local museum.
Sinn Fein claimed police first entered into, but then broke, an informal agreement on where the demonstrators could stand as the Prime Minister arrived. Angry words and sit-down protests quickly degenerated into pushing and shoving, then kicking and punching. At one point a gas cylinder was heaved through the back window of a Royal Ulster Constabulary car.
Both Sinn Fein and the RUC had apparently expected a low-key protest on a small scale, of the type officers had policed without serious incident earlier in the day in Belfast. As the situation spun out of control republicans were televised attacking police and vehicles with some venom. Twelve RUC officers were injured and several people needed hospital treatment, among them a Sinn Fein councillor, Mary Nelis.
According to initial reports Mr Major's visit to the museum was cancelled but later, some hours behind schedule and after things had quietened down, he arrived. He issued challenges to Sinn Fein in live television interviews. He declared: "If one needed the clearest possible illustration of why Sinn Fein had to pass through exploratory dialogue before it would find itself treated like other democratic parties, this afternoon in Derry shows that."
Ironically, Londonderry had been one of Northern Ireland's most peaceful spots even before last August's IRA ceasefire. Mitchel McLaughlin, a local councillor, who is chairman of Sinn Fein, was one of a number of public representatives waiting for Mr Major inside the museum. Before the disruption there seemed every prospect that he would become the first Sinn Fein representative to shake the Prime Minister's hand.
Mr McLaughlin said the RUC had to take the major responsibility for the disturbances, claiming they had not planned properly and had no crowd control strategy. He added, however, that "both sides were in the wrong" - a statement which is probably as far as the republicans will be prepared to go towards condemning the incident.Reuse content