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22 May 1997 Edition

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Our honourable friends

Eoin O'Broin was with the new Sinn Féin MPs at Westminster

The main lobby inside the British Houses of Parliament has an ornate ceiling which I'm sure has been much admired by visitors over the years. But it struck our little group of Irish republicans as depicting one of the many ironies of British rule in Ireland. On each of the four panels of the ceiling there is a bright mosaic representing the four parts of the ``British Isles'': Scotland, Wales, England and of course Ireland.

The irony is that Ireland, represented by the provincial crests of Leinster and Ulster, is recognised as both a single unit and yet part of the United Kingdom. They're a bit behind the times in this place.

Even more ironic was the presence of the Sinn Féin delegation, who were there to challenge the discriminatory ruling by speaker, Betty Boothroyd, denying Sinn Féin MPs access to the facilities in Westminister.

It was an historic visit as newly elected MP for West Belfast Gerry Adams, and Sinn Fein MP for Mid-Ulster, Martin McGuinness, entered the heart of the British state to assert the rights of their constitutents to equality of treatment.

The Speaker's rewriting of the rules, which came into effect at midnight on Tuesday 20 May, prevents any MP from using the Commons' facilities if they refuse to take the Oath of Allegiance to the Queen. It has been described by Adams as ``discriminatotry'' and ``arrogant''.

Speaking outside the Houses of Parliament shortly before entering, Adams told reporters, ``we are here today to represent those people who elected myself and Martin McGuinness and who voted for our party, and also generally reflecting that wider democratic sentiment in Ireland which wants to see a new relationship between the people of Ireland and Britain.''

As we walked inside the Commons to the cheers and shouts of support from the large crowd of wellwishers, confusion prevailed. The sight of two Sinn Féin MPs, their personal aides, and myself from An Phoblacht, walking past statues of Gladstone and pictures of Cromwell turned the heads of police and public alike. Startled second looks from senior Tory MPs, including John Redwood and Micheal Ancram, brought more than a smile to our faces. And to the lobby journalists, who followed Adams and McGuinness everywhere.

Redwood and Ancram had a look of startled distaste on their faces at this group of relaxed, smiling republicans invaded their hallowed territory.

Throughout the day, a number of MPs from both the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties approached us and told Adams and McGuinness of their disagreement with the Speaker's ``new restrictions''; one new MP said that ``her decision undermines the very principle of representative democracy itself''.

However as the day went on it was clear that the decision to bar Sinn Féin was to be strictly enforced. A series of meetings with the Sergeant at Arms and the Commons Clerk were held in order to clarify the official position of the parliament, and for the two MPs to express their opposition to the denial of their rights. The official position? We were Irish republicans, this was the British parliament, so keep out. Clearly we and our voters didn't merit the same respect as other more worthy voters.

After a brief tour of the building, and and a very tasty dinner in the Commons canteen, the business of the day was over and we returned outside, to be greeted by a large group of supporters; Irish and British alike were waving tricolours and holding placards reminding MPs as they entered the building that 126,921 people voted for Sinn Féin and deserve the same rights as other voters.

Addressing the crowd Adams said; ``On 1 May Sinn Féin renewed our electoral mandate, substantially increased our vote and became the third largest party in the six counties.

``That mandate should have been fully respected by the British government. There should be no double standards within a proper democratic process. But the decision by the Speaker illustrates the undemocratic nature of British policy towards Ireland.

``Once again the British state changed the rules which for over 100 years have specifically allowed MP's who wouldn't take the oath to have access to facilities. What is the British establishment afraid of? Why does it subvert its own laws rather that face the reality that those it opposes have rights? One thing is for certain, we will be back''.
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