Prime Minister John Major on Wednesday made an unannounced visit to Northern Ireland, which was disrupted when Sinn Fein protesters clashed with the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Londonderry.
It was the worst street disturbance in Northern Ireland since the Irish Republican Army called a cease-fire eight months ago. And the incident put into question the first talks scheduled between the British government and Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political arm.
At least seven officers were hurt in the scuffle, none seriously, police reported. Fighting demonstrators chanted “The whole world’s watching.”
After the fracas, Major declared that protesters had participated in “a riot organized as far as we can tell by Sinn Fein.” As to the future of the Wednesday talks with the republican group, Major declared: “We must wait and see what Sinn Fein has to say.”
Later, Downing Street sources said the talks would probably go ahead.
Major called on Sinn Fein leaders to condemn Wednesday’s violence and dismissed their claim that the trouble was actually caused by police, saying that assertion was “absolute nonsense.”
Some Sinn Fein members, as well as those of their implacable opponents, the Protestant Unionists, criticized the timing of Major’s visit as an attempt to bolster his Conservative Party’s fortunes in today’s local elections in England and Wales. Political commentators have suggested that the Tory party will lose hundreds of local council seats in a massive vote of no-confidence in Major’s government.
Earlier, speaking in Templepatrick, Major again said the IRA must decommission its weapons before Sinn Fein could enter into the full political process. “To sit at the same table” with British negotiators, he said, “Sinn Fein must gain the confidence of the other parties by making a commitment to progressive disarmament and by beginning a verifiable process of decommissioning.”
On arrival in Belfast, Major seemed untroubled by two dozen Sinn Fein demonstrators.