As more Irish blood is shed, Sinn Fein talks of peace and of stanching flow

January 29, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau

LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland -- Like sparks flaring from a banked fire, death and violence sputter on in Northern Ireland even while the combatants fumble for a way to talk peace.

Here in the "cockpit of Irish politics," as the normally uncommunicative Sinn Fein republican political party held its first open peace forum yesterday, Northern Ireland counted three more sectarian slayings.

A fourth man struggled for life in a hospital here after a mortar round exploded prematurely. The shell apparently was being prepared for launch against British-led security forces.

"A deep depression has settled over Derry," said Johnny Breen, a 72-year-old retiree, talking about the blast and the claustrophobic skies that clamped down on the city. Small gray-green armored Land Rovers wheeled through the streets outside the Victorian Guildhall where the Sinn Fein forum was being held.

Many of the people who came to the Sinn Fein Peace Commission talked of hope for peace, if not optimism about its coming.

"The prospect is more in people's minds than ever before," said Tony Carlin, a plain-spoken man who read from a hand-lettered lines on notebook paper.

Joe Public, he called himself, but he was once mayor of this hyper-political city where even its name is contentious.

Irish nationalists and republicans, who may or may not be the same people, call it Derry. British and Unionists called it Londonderry. The British named it Londonderry in 1613, which is how long the debate has been going on.

The city's coat of arms includes a now heavily symbolic skeleton. The local quip is that it's waiting for a job. Unemployment here runs at about 22 percent.

The Guildhall itself is full of reminders of British rule -- from the statue of an imperious-looking Queen Victoria to the stained-glass views of London donated by the Worshipful Company of Mercers in 1912. Republicans expressed their disapproval in 1972, when it was bombed twice.

But peace hopes have gripped Northern Irelanders since Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, which is the political wing of the Irish republican movement, and John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, revealed they had been holding meetings and had prepared a peace initiative that might end the violence besieging this land in the struggle against British rule.

The British government reluctantly conceded it had contacts with Sinn Fein, which is widely condemned in Britain and by Loyalist politicians in Northern Ireland as only a front for the Irish Republican Army.

John Major, the British prime minister, and Albert Reynolds, the premier of the Irish Republic, negotiated terms for a peace process that they signed at Mr. Major's Downing Street residence six weeks ago.

The Downing Street Declaration promised self-determination for Northern Ireland and political legitimacy for Sinn Fein if the IRA renounced violence.

The declaration offered protections for Protestant loyalist unionists who think of themselves as British.

Sinn Fein said it would think this over, and has repeatedly asked for clarifications of sticky points. Yesterday's forum was part of the thought process.

"We're giving an opportunity to other people to give us their views about the political situation," said Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's vice president. "All the submissions . . . will be considered by Sinn Fein and will form a very important part of Sinn Fein's final position on the initiative."

Mr. McGuinness said that would come around the end of next month. The British prime minister has expressed some exasperation with the pace of Sinn Fein's deliberations.

"What we have tried to do through this exercise," Mr. McGuinness said, "is to establish what the members of our movement feel about the declaration, what our supporters feel about the declaration and, very importantly for us, what our opponents feel about the declaration.

"What we're trying to do is be very serious and very responsible, and that's the reason for the delay," he said.

"Utterances of the contrary from the British media and British politicians , that we're actually delaying the process, is nonsense," he said. "We believe we're behaving very responsibly.

"We're trying to listen to people and we're talking about what they have to say."

He complained in his turn that the British had "pestered" Sinn Fein for constant contact last year. "But now they claim they have a political initiative," he said, "and there's been no contact whatsoever and hasn't been for some weeks."

Virtually all the groups and people making submissions at the forum here were nationalists. None were loyalist or unionist.

The Guildhall is on the Catholic, nationalist side of the River Foyle,which divides "Slash City," Londonderry/Derry, nearly as clearly as the Wall once divided Berlin. Only one poor, working-class Protestant neighborhood remains on the west bank.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.