Sinn Fein, the Northern Ireland party that once backed the killing of police officers, met the province’s police commander for the first time Monday in pursuit of a new peace agreement between Catholics and Protestants.
Leaders of Sinn Fein — among them Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, both reputed chiefs of the outlawed Irish Republican Army — met Chief Constable Hugh Orde in the office of Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The British leader, who opened relations with Sinn Fein soon after taking office in 1997, has spent the past year trying to forge a power-sharing agreement between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists, who represent most of Northern Ireland’s British Protestant majority.
A previous Catholic-Protestant administration — the key goal of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday accord of 1998 — collapsed in 2002, largely because of Protestant conflicts with Sinn Fein over the IRA’s activities. Since then, voters have made the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein the two biggest parties, complicating efforts to revive power-sharing.
Moving toward the once unthinkable
Monday’s meetings appeared to be part of tightly orchestrated moves toward a once-unthinkable understanding between Sinn Fein and Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley, who built a political career on blocking moves toward political compromise.
Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern say the time has come for the parties to take a decision. If they accept a confidential blueprint drafted by both governments, the way could be clear for a new declaration from the IRA on its next disarmament steps.
The Sinn Fein delegation made no comment as it left Blair’s Downing Street office after a 50-minute meeting.
Adams had said before the meeting that he wanted to talk to Orde about cutting back British military forces in Northern Ireland — not about Sinn Fein’s policy of refusing normal relations with the police.
“It’s a disgrace that (Irish) republican heartlands are militarized by British crown forces,” Adams said, referring in part to several British army watchtowers near Northern Ireland’s border with the independent Republic of Ireland.
In Belfast, Democratic Unionist leaders had no comment before their meeting with John de Chastelain, the retired Canadian general who since 1997 has been trying to disarm Northern Ireland’s rival outlawed groups, most prominently the IRA.
Foes say IRA must disarm, disband
The Democratic Unionists say they won’t work with Sinn Fein unless the IRA fully disarms and disbands. They insist that the next disarmament acts must be photographed and independently witnessed, details resisted by Sinn Fein.
Britain and Protestant leaders have been seeking IRA disarmament for the past decade. The IRA — which police estimate retains around 100 tons of weaponry — has insisted on total secrecy during three partial disarmament moves from October 2001 to October 2003.
Adams said his delegation was seeking “an accelerated program of demilitarization” and this required him to talk to Orde, who determines the level of military backup his police force needs.
Adams declined to discuss whether Sinn Fein would drop its boycott on police-reform efforts, another key plank of the Good Friday package. Orde — a former deputy commander of London’s Metropolitan Police — since 2002 has led efforts to transform the Northern Ireland police from a terrorism-focused, overwhelmingly Protestant force into a lightly armed organization with Catholic support.
More than 300 officers have been killed and 10,000 injured, mostly by the IRA, since Northern Ireland descended into civil disorder in the late 1960s.
British troop strength in Northern Ireland stands at 13,000, compared to around 20,000 six years ago. More than two dozen installations have been torn down.
Britain has already pledged to cut troop strength to 5,000 operating from 14 bases — if the continuing threat from IRA dissidents diminishes.