Sinn Fein disputes stories about IRA peace gestures

Published: Sunday, December 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 30, 2002 at 10:21 p.m.
BELFAST, Northern Ireland - Sinn Fein leaders Saturday denied British media reports the Irish Republican Army was about to make a series of peace gestures designed to revive Northern Ireland's Catholic-Protestant administration.
"These unfounded stories from anonymous sources not only have no basis in fact, but actively undermine the talks taking place," said Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Fein deputy leader and former IRA commander. Sinn Fein is the political arm of the IRA.
Reports in two London newspapers, The Guardian and The Times, claimed that the IRA planned to declare its "war" against Britain was over.
The nearly identical reports, which offered no named sources, read like the wish list of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Ulster Unionist Party chief David Trimble. They have warned that Northern Ireland's 1998 accord - and particularly the Catholic-Protestant coalition government at its heart - cannot withstand continued IRA activity.
Britain stripped power from Northern Ireland's four-party administration on Oct. 14, after police uncovered evidence of a long-running IRA spying operation inside government circles that allegedly involved a senior Sinn Fein official. Britain's intervention prevented resignations by administration leader Trimble and his Protestant deputies and kept open the possibility of reviving the coalition after negotiations.
On Saturday, Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern met at the British leader's rural Chequers retreat to discuss their joint efforts to revive the Northern Ireland government. The two premiers, who have set the end of February as an unofficial deadline for a breakthrough, declined to comment on Saturday's IRA claims.
Trimble insists Protestants will no longer work with Sinn Fein unless the IRA keeps disarming and ceases all threatening activities, including so-called "punishment" attacks on criminal rivals within its Catholic power bases. Police say the IRA has committed more than 80 such attacks in the past year.
The IRA called a cease-fire in 1997 after killing about 1,800 people in a failed 27-year campaign to abolish Northern Ireland as a predominantly Protestant, British territory.
But the outlawed group, which has an estimated 500 members, remains active on several fronts, including running criminal rackets, meting out limb-shattering punishments, training new members and gathering intelligence.
The 1998 accord envisioned Sinn Fein's inclusion in a Northern Ireland government and the total disarmament of the IRA by mid-2000, but the two goals weren't explicitly linked, which has caused protracted arguments between Sinn Fein and Trimble's Ulster Unionists.
A U.S.-mediated deal in late 1999 persuaded Trimble to form a government alongside Sinn Fein on condition that the IRA gradually disarmed in response, but the IRA didn't start disarming until October 2001. The IRA last month broke off negotiations with John de Chastelain, a retired Canadian general who has led disarmament efforts since 1997.

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