Sinn Fein backs mixed N. Ireland police force

Catholic party's vote is a step toward local rule

January 29, 2007|By New York Times News Service

DUBLIN, Ireland -- Sinn Fein, the main Catholic republican party in Northern Ireland, voted yesterday to endorse the police force in the divided province, opening the way toward restoring local rule through a government shared by Protestants and Catholics.

Sinn Fein's leaders, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, won approval to support a police force that would move over the next 15 years from being a Protestant-dominated body to one where Catholics and Protestants are represented in proportion to the makeup of the province's population.

An overwhelming majority of the 900 delegates who had gathered voted to endorse the force after six hours of discussions.

The vote signals a shift in the thinking of the Irish republicans, who since 1922 have distrusted the police, courts and prisons in Northern Ireland as institutions of British rule.

Sinn Fein has long regarded the Northern Ireland police force as an armed force that had allied with British soldiers to maintain British rule in the province.

The vote yesterday allows the British and Irish governments to move ahead in coming days with plans to persuade the Northern Ireland Protestants, led by the Rev. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, to share power with Sinn Fein Catholics in a Belfast-based government.

Tony Blair, the British prime minister, and Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister, praised the vote yesterday. They are to meet tomorrow in London to discuss plans to restore local rule to the province.

Under the British-Irish plan to begin transferring power from Britain to local rule, known as the St. Andrews Agreement proposals, Sinn Fein's pledge to endorse the Northern Ireland police force was necessary for the Democratic Unionists to consider giving their support to a shared government.

Democratic Unionists, like most Protestants in the province, seek to maintain links to Britain. A Protestant-Catholic local government, set forth in the Good Friday peace accord of 1998, last met in 2002 before it fell apart amid widespread mistrust between the rival political groups.

The Irish Republican Army, an ally of Sinn Fein, fought the Northern Ireland police and the British army in a military campaign to unite Ireland until a cease-fire in 1994. The Good Friday peace accord mostly ended the kind of politically motivated killings that had marked the previous three decades. The conflict killed more than 3,600 people, including 300 police officers.

Under that 1998 agreement, Catholic representation on the police force is to increase to about 42 percent, the percentage of Catholics living in the province.

The British-Irish accord proposes elections for a Belfast-based assembly March 7 and the establishment of a Protestant-Catholic provincial government March 26.

To meet those deadlines, the support of Paisley, who has opposed sharing power with Catholic republicans in the past, will be needed.

Senior politicians in the Democratic Unionist Party have said in recent months that they oppose sharing power with Sinn Fein under any circumstances.

In a speech to Sinn Fein delegates yesterday, McGuinness made it clear that after his party's "historic" vote, he expected Blair to put pressure on Paisley's Democratic Unionists to agree to share power.

Speaking to reporters after the vote, McGuinness said he hoped that "the spirit of generosity shown today" by his party would be matched by the Democratic Unionists.

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