Stirring hope and alarm in embattled Northern Ireland, Britain on Friday formally invited the political arm of the outlawed Irish Republican Army to participate in peace talks for the first time.
The government of Prime Minister Tony Blair said the six-week absence of violence that has followed the resumption of an IRA cease-fire has earned the political party Sinn Fein a place at the negotiating table in Belfast on Sept. 15. But some British loyalists threatened to boycott the talks.
Although the announcement had been expected, it was a historic step after seven decades of unflagging hostility between successive British governments and mostly Roman Catholic republican forces fighting to end London’s rule of the divided province.
Sinn Fein, whose top two leaders will visit the United States next week, hailed Friday’s move as a “the most wonderful opportunity this century to bring about a settlement.”
Moderate Catholics in the province and the Irish government to the south expressed their pleasure.
The British government wants the talks - to be mediated by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell - to involve all of Northern Ireland’s political parties. But leaders representing the Protestant majority in the province reacted with skepticism, scorn and the boycott threat. One Conservative British member of Parliament denounced Friday’s invitation as “a further capitulation to terrorism.”
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has long demanded unconditional admission to peace talks. The British government dropped an early insistence on a surrender of IRA weapons, but Blair, who took office in May, had demanded unequivocal restoration of the cease-fire broken by the IRA in February 1996.
The IRA announced a resumption of the cease-fire on July 19, although in the weeks before it there had been continuing violence, including the murder of two policemen. And some analysts remain concerned that the move is one more tactic in an unending IRA war.
But Britain’s secretary for Northern Ireland, Marjorie Mowlam, said: “On the basis of the information that I have at present, I believe it to be an unequivocal cease-fire. There is no evidence that there is IRA activity. Active targeting has stopped.”
British troops have been withdrawn from central Belfast, and police now patrol there in shirt sleeves and holstered pistols rather than with long arms and flak jackets.
Sinn Fein negotiator Martin McGuinness, who will accompany Adams on his visits to New York, Washington and San Francisco, said his party will enter the talks arguing that partition of Ireland has been a failure and must be ended. “We believe the best solution is a unitary state, a united Ireland,” he said.
Two right-wing Protestant parties said flatly Friday that they will not attend the conference. The Rev. Ian Paisley, who leads one of those parties, called Friday’s announcement “a sellout” of loyalist interests.
Before talks are convened, Sinn Fein must first formally renounce violence, agree to abide by the outcome of the talks and swear to irrevocably accept democratic practices.
Sinn Fein leaders already have accepted those requirements in principle. Of more substantive concern is the establishment of an international commission on the surrender of paramilitary weapons.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.