A key Ulster Protestant agrees to join talks with Sinn Fein
By JAMES F. CLARITY, c.1997 N.Y. Times News Service, BELFAST, Northern Ireland

The leader of the largest Protestant political party in Northern Ireland agreed on Wednesday to take part in formal, broad-based peace talks that include Sinn Fein, the political wing of the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Irish Republican Army.

By agreeing to enter the talks, David Trimble, head of the Ulster Unionist Party, became the first Protestant unionist leader to agree to attend negotiations with Sinn Fein since Ireland was divided in 1922 into the independent Irish Free State and the British province of Ulster.

Trimble said his first act would be to try to have Sinn Fein expelled from the talks. But officials said such a move would not succeed because the Irish and British governments, sponsors of the talks, want Sinn Fein at the negotiating table. The talks on the future of this Protestant-dominated British province resumed in Belfast on Monday with the admission of Sinn Fein.

"We have no illusions about the character of Sinn Fein," Trimble said as he entered Castle Buildings in the Stormont area of Belfast, where the talks are under way. "We did not invite them to the table, but we are not afraid of them and we're not going to run away. We are not here to negotiate, but to confront and expose the fascist character of Sinn Fein."

But most officials at the talks expected that eventually he would face Sinn Fein across the negotiating table, possibly in the coming weeks. Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, said Trimble was "play acting," but welcomed him to the talks.

"We will have negotiations," said Ray Burke, the Irish Republic's foreign minister and chief delegate at the talks. "Mr. Trimble has shown great courage by coming here." His remarks echoed those of Mo Mowlam, Britain's secretary for Northern Ireland.

Trimble's decision to take part in the talks represented a sharp change in his policy. A year ago, when he controlled enough unionist votes in the British Parliament in London potentially to oust the government of former Prime Minister John Major, he vowed not to enter talks until Sinn Fein and the IRA guaranteed that disarmament of the guerrillas would begin during the talks. Major supported his position. After Tony Blair became Britain's prime minister last May with a large majority, Trimble's power waned and he was persuaded to enter the talks, but he did not move quickly.

On July 20, the IRA resumed its cease-fire, but said it would not disarm during the talks, and stated last week that, in effect, it would feel justified in resuming its bombing and shooting campaign if it did approve any agreement the talks might produce.

Trimble also said he did not trust Sinn Fein's pledge on Monday to adhere to nonviolence, a promise that gained the party admission to the talks. Then Trimble accused the IRA of involvement in the non-lethal bombing on Tuesday of a police station in a town west of here.

The IRA denied involvement, but Trimble called again for the ouster of Sinn Fein from the talks. The Irish and British governments declined to expel Sinn Fein, because they believe that without Sinn Fein at the table no significant agreement can be reached.

Officials and experts say Trimble changed his mind finally after the province's business leaders urged him to join the talks and recent polls showed that more than 90 percent of his party's supporters felt he should face Sinn Fein across the table, not attack it from outside.

On Wednesday, Trimble said he would continue to insist that disarmament begin during the talks, but he had abandoned his position that he would boycott the conference until he got assurances, which he has not.

The two governments said two days ago that disarmament was "indispensable," but did not insist that it begin before the negotiations end, as expected, in the spring.

The negotiations are aimed at ending the sectarian violence between Northern Ireland's Protestant majority and its Catholic minority. Protestants, generally, want to remain British; Catholic leaders, like Adams, want a united Ireland, free of British control, run by the overwhelmingly Catholic Irish Republic to the south.

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