Protestants join talks, but not to negotiate
By KEVIN CULLEN c.1997 The Boston Globe, BELFAST

Protestant unionists Wednesday ended their two-day boycott of multiparty talks on the future of Northern Ireland but said they would participate to confront, not to negotiate with, the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein.

A day after a bomb exploded in a predominantly Protestant town outside Belfast -- police believe it was planted by IRA dissidents who want to derail the talks -- Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble led a contingent from his party and the two parties that represent loyalist paramilitary groups onto the grounds where the historic discussions will take place.

But Trimble and the other unionists ruled out sitting in the same room as Sinn Fein, meaning the start of talks is still days or weeks off. Even if unionists agree to sit at the same table, it appears that at least the initial conversations will be at rather than to their political enemies.

"We're not here to negotiate with Sinn Fein but ... to expose their fascist character," Trimble said defiantly.

Unionist leaders said they would not consider sitting at the negotiating table with Sinn Fein until police determined who was most likely behind blast on Tuesday in Markethill, about 35 miles southwest of here. There has been no claim of responsibility, but the IRA has denied it had anything to do with the bomb.

Unionists scoff at that denial, and say the blast reinforces their demand that the IRA begin surrendering its weapons before serious negotiations take place. Police sources said forensic tests of the explosion site should give them a good idea of who was responsible for the bomb that devastated the center of town but, because of a half-hour warning, injured no one. A detective with the Royal Ulster Constabulary reiterated his belief that the bomb was planted by the Continuity Army Council, IRA dissidents who bitterly oppose Sinn Fein's efforts to take part in the peace process.

Unionists said they showed up Wednesday in part to rebut criticism that they were being intransigent.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams welcomed their arrival, but he challenged them to seriously negotiate. Adams was not nearly as conciliatory as the British and Irish government officials, who showered Trimble and his colleagues with praise for showing up.

Adams accused the unionists of causing the IRA's 18-month cease-fire to collapse last year by refusing to engage in negotiations because "they're still afraid of change, and their strategy is to wreck this process."

The British Secretary of State Mo Mowlam and her Irish counterpart, Ray Burke, were beaming at the Unionists' participation Wednesday and praised their courage for coming. Mowlam and Burke have worked behind the scenes for years to bring about this day.

"We'd prefer they were in the same room, but at this point we'll settle for them being in the same building," said one British diplomat.

As they entered the site of the talks, the unionists formed a photogenic phalanx similar to the one offered by Sinn Fein on Monday, when it entered talks with the British government for the first time in 76 years. Joining Trimble's party, the largest in Northern Ireland, were the Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party, two groups who are the political wings of the main loyalist paramilitary organizations.

David Ervine, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is linked to the Ulster Volunteer Force, seemed more eager to enter talks than Trimble, while Gary McMichael, the Ulster Democratic Party leader whose father was killed by the IRA, said he relished the prospect of exposing what he called Sinn Fein's hypocrisy in claiming to embrace democracy.

Trimble urged the two other main unionist parties, Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists and the UK Unionists led by Robert McCartney, to join in the talks to present a united front. But spokesmen for both those hard-line parties said they would not sit down with Sinn Fein under any circumstances.

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