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British, IRA Wing Hold First-Ever Formal Talks : Peace: The sides are separated by their demands, but the meeting is amicable between government, Sinn Fein.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Leaders of the British government and Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, held their first-ever formal talks Friday as part of the continuing search for peace in Northern Ireland.

At the historic meeting in Belfast, the British insisted that the IRA must hand over weapons and explosives as part of a permanent settlement and that a majority of the people in Northern Ireland should determine the eventual fate of the troubled province.

Sinn Fein, for its part, called for an end to British military operations in Northern Ireland, where a 3-month-old cease-fire is holding after 25 years of violence, and argued that the Irish people of both north and south should decide the province’s future.

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The amicable talks, the first such negotiations in 22 years, lasted more than three hours in Stormont Castle, once the seat of Northern Ireland’s government when the province was largely self-governed. Both parties agreed to meet again Dec. 19.

Former IRA member Martin McGuinness, who led Sinn Fein’s delegation, told reporters: “This is an opportunity which needs to be built upon. It is now time to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor.”

McGuinness, leading a five-member delegation that included a man and woman convicted on terrorist charges, said the speedy release of IRA political prisoners would greatly help the peace process.

Until now, the British government would not speak directly with Sinn Fein, because for years its leaders refused to renounce violence in its campaign to unify the island. But the British have now accepted that the cease-fire, which began Aug. 31, is evidence that the IRA is renouncing violence, and the government now feels free to talk directly to Sinn Fein leaders.

But hard-line Protestant Unionists, who want Northern Ireland to stay part of the United Kingdom, bitterly protested the direct talks between London and Sinn Fein.

The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, declared that the British decision to deal with Sinn Fein was “an utter disgrace.”

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“I’m not worried about who Sinn Fein brings to talks,” Paisley said, “I’m worried about the talks themselves. They shouldn’t have taken place anyway.”

Britain’s minister for Northern Ireland, Michael Ancram, said after the Friday talks that they were “businesslike and constructive” and that everyone “should take encouragement from them.”

But he added that illegal arms are a “central issue” in the peace process, saying, “Their safe disposal will provide convincing evidence of a permanent end to the use of violence and of commitment to exclusively peaceful methods and the democratic process.”

But Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said at a press conference that the British should not use the arms issue as an excuse to block talks.

“I’m sure the British government recognizes that as part of a lasting settlement there needs to be a decommissioning of all weapons, (including) the decommissioning of the British army,” he said.

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