Arch-enemies meet at talks on Northern Ireland's future
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP)

Northern Ireland's main pro-British party faced the IRA's political allies for the first time in negotiations Tuesday -- but only long enough to demand that the Sinn Fein party be kicked out of the process.

Apparently harboring little hope of success, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble was already talking about how his party would deal with Sinn Fein in the weeks ahead.

"We are not there to negotiate with Sinn Fein and there is no obligation for us to be present the whole time. We will negotiate with the government and other parties. We can pick and choose bilaterals," Trimble told reporters.

Nonetheless, the session marked a milestone in the long effort by the British and Irish governments to get all of Northern Ireland's parties to the table to negotiate a settlement acceptable to both Protestants and the Roman Catholic minority.

Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam, the senior British official in the province, must decide whether to accept or reject the unionist challenge. But the government has gone to great lengths to draw Sinn Fein into the process while also keeping the Ulster Unionists involved, and was delighted to get both parties in the same room Tuesday.

"This afternoon we will have around the table loyalists, republicans, nationalists and unionists," Mowlam said before the rancorous meeting. "We aim to move forward towards substantive negotiations as soon as possible, and today is another step in that direction."

Sinn Fein was admitted to the talks this month after the Irish Republican Army called a cease-fire in July and later affirmed its commitment to nonviolence. The Ulster Unionists contend the cease-fire was merely a tactical move, like a previous IRA cease-fire that lasted 17 months. The party's security spokesman, Ken Maginnis, accused Sinn Fein leaders of directing the IRA as well.

"We know that Gerry Adams and (his deputy) Martin McGuinness have been actively involved in the IRA's terrorist campaign since the beginning ... as activists, as commanders and now as godfathers," Maginnis told reporters. "Let them deny what everyone knows and make greater liars of themselves than they already are."

Adams called the Ulster Unionist protest "a sham."

"This was hailed as the great showdown, the great challenge to Sinn Fein. But the leaders simply made their statement then scampered out of the room" during Tuesday's meeting, Adams said.

Trimble "didn't say anything and had he listened to what I had to say, I made the point that every section of our people have suffered and that none of us have a monopoly on suffering," Adams added.

McGuinness dismissed the Ulster Unionists' claim that Sinn Fein didn't have to be at the table.

"I think everybody acknowledges that if we are not in the talks then there is no prospect whatsoever of a settlement in this conflict," he said. John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, Sinn Fein's moderate rival for Catholic votes, said he believed Sinn Fein was genuinely committed to peace.

"We have got to the stage now where all the major parties are here. No one could have forecast that a few years ago," he said. "Now let's get down to sorting out our differences."

Although Adams and Trimble have never spoken, Ulster Unionist Party colleagues have sat down with Adams and other Sinn Fein leaders. The Ulster Unionists have blamed the IRA for bombing a police station in Markethill, 35 miles southwest of Belfast a week ago. An anonymous caller claiming to speak for the little-known splinter group Continuity Army Council claimed responsibility for the blast, in which no one was injured.

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