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Sinn Fein Wins Strong Backing in N. Irish Peace Vote

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sinn Fein, political arm of the outlawed Irish Republican Army, posted strong gains in Northern Ireland elections Friday in a vote that simultaneously challenged Britain’s peace plans and the IRA’s refusal to declare a new cease-fire.

Overall, the choice of 110 delegates to a forum for June 10 peace talks split predictably along religious lines in the ethnically riven province.

Parties representing the Protestant majority, which wants Northern Ireland to remain part of Britain, came in first: Moderates headed by David Trimble won 30 seats, and hard-liners led by the Rev. Ian Paisley got 24.

On the Roman Catholic side, moderates led by John Hume ran third with 22 seats, but their vote was eroded in key areas by Sinn Fein, which got 17.

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Minor parties shared the remaining seats.

With the best electoral showing in its history--15.4% of the total vote--Sinn Fein elected its president, Gerry Adams, and a number of prominent former IRA prisoners to the forum.

On the one hand, analysts saw the vote as a clear message to the IRA to make peace; the group ended a hugely popular 17-month cease-fire in February and has refused to reinstate it. IRA bombs have exploded in London, but not in Northern Ireland, which clings both tenuously and tenaciously to the current quiet after 25 years of savage and sapping sectarian warfare.

But the Sinn Fein showing will also exert fierce pressure on British Prime Minister John Major and Irish Prime Minister John Bruton, analysts here said.

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The two leaders, strongly supported by the United States, scheduled the peace talks with the insistence that Adams and his supporters not participate without reinstatement of the IRA cease-fire. In statements Friday night from London and Dublin, Major and Bruton reiterated their demand. Adams recoiled.

“We have an electoral mandate. That puts the onus on the two governments,” Adams said. “They can’t impose an election on people and then refuse to accept the outcome or respect the rights of those who happened to vote for one party with which they disagree.”

According to Adams, Sinn Fein consults with the IRA but cannot control it. Britain and Protestant loyalists say Sinn Fein and the IRA are indistinguishable.

The most impressive electoral show of Sinn Fein strength came in gritty and combative Catholic West Belfast, where paintings of hooded and heavily armed IRA fighters are a regular feature on red brick walls. In 1992, Adams narrowly lost his West Belfast seat in the British Parliament to Joe Hendron of Hume’s Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP).

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This time around, Sinn Fein reaped double the SDLP vote, electing four of the five forum representatives from the district. Hendron cried foul.

Adams won easily. So did Gerry Kelly, 41, jailed for his part in a 1973 bombing in London that was the IRA’s first attack in Britain.

In 1983, Kelly organized a mass IRA escape from Maze prison; he was rearrested three years later in the Netherlands, which agreed to his extradition on condition he not be jailed for “political crimes.”

Released in 1989, Kelly later participated with Adams and his deputy, Martin McGuinness, in secret talks with the British government.

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Until his candidacy for the peace forum, though, Kelly was not known as a member of Sinn Fein.

McGuinness, who denies British press reports that he was a member of the IRA’s ruling command, was elected to the forum Friday from Londonderry, where Sinn Fein also scored heavily at moderates’ expense.

On the unionist side, Trimble, running his first election as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, maintained the party’s advantage over Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party despite a Protestant vote that was split among a dozen parties. Trimble seems disposed to negotiate with Sinn Fein. Paisley does not.

Under election rules, the top 10 parties will attend the talks--although there is no certainty the talks will proceed.

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All parties that attend will have to subscribe to democratic, nonviolent principles laid down earlier this year by an international commission headed by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine). But Britain and Ireland have yet to produce an agenda or an agreement on how to address the explosive question of arms surrender.

Britain and reluctant unionists have agreed to Mitchell’s call for weapons surrender parallel with political talks. Sinn Fein says no arms surrender should take place until there is a final agreement, and the IRA has said it will not surrender any weapons.


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