Protestant unionists Tuesday accused the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, of being led by “godfathers of terrorism,” but walked out of a scheduled meeting before the accused got a chance to respond.
What was billed as a historic confrontation, as Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists, Northern Ireland’s largest party, sat at the same negotiating table for the first time, was a one-sided and anticlimactic affair lasting just about a half-hour.
The unionists showed up only to formally indict what they said was the hypocrisy of Sinn Fein’s sitting at the table while its associates in the Irish Republican Army remained outside, still in possession of their weaponry.
David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, asked the British and Irish governments to expel Sinn Fein from the talks, claiming that the IRA and Sinn Fein are one and the same, and blaming the IRA for a bombing last week in the predominantly Protestant town of Market-hill. The British and Irish governments said they would decide today on Trimble’s demand. Based on the evidence presented Tuesday, however, there is no chance they will expel Sinn Fein. Both governments have accepted Sinn Fein’s word that it is a separate organization from the IRA, and that it is committed to democracy and nonviolence.
Police on both sides of the border, meanwhile, have advised the governments that they believe a breakaway group of IRA dissidents bombed Markethill, causing extensive damage but no injuries. The Continuity Army Council, which came to prominence two years ago, claimed responsibility for the bombing over the weekend.
Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein’s leader, emerged from the closed-door negotiating room at Stormont slightly bemused, but also agitated that a day was spent on what he considered unionist posturing.
“This was heralded as the great confrontation, the great showdown, the great challenge to Sinn Fein,” he said. “The leaders of unionism came into the room, made a submission, and then scampered out to talk to the media.”
Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator, saw little humor in the episode. He said that the governments should convene serious negotiations today, and that if the unionists were not prepared to participate, the talks should proceed without them.
British Secretary of State Mo Mowlam called for patience, stressing that this was part of the process. Irish and British diplomats, meanwhile, said they understood Trimble’s position, as he is vulnerable to attacks from other unionists, primarily the Rev. Ian Paisley, for participating in the talks in the first place.
Trimble remained defiant. “The truth will out,” he said. “The truth of Markethill will out.”” Asked why he did not wait to hear Sinn Fein’s response to his charges, Trimble at first said there was no need to. Later, he said Sinn Fein’s lack of a response was a tacit admission of guilt.
But according to others in the room, including John Hume, the leader of moderate nationalists, and John Alderdice, leader of the prounion Alliance Party, the unionists left before Sinn Fein could reply.