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11 September 1997 Edition

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Historic US visit by Sinn Féin leadership

By Mick Naughton.

``We want to see an end to British jurisdiction,'' said Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams MP. ``British Prime Minister Tony Blair says there will not be a united Ireland in the lifetime of people. We say just the opposite.''

Those words of hope spoken and widely reported in the American media last week reflected the hope not only of Irish people at home, but also the hope of the many millions that make up the Irish Diasopra, especially in the United States.

Adams was speaking during a packed address to the National Press Club. Many newspapers, including the New York Times and USA Today ran the Sinn Féin message on their front pages. Adams's words consequently were carried to every state of the union, with many state papers and television channels covering each day's events.

A critical feature of almost every meeting or briefing was the Sinn Féin appeal for unionists not to boycott the upcoming negotiations. ``We believe that the Unionists have as much right to be on the island as we have,'' he said. Adams added that Sinn Féin's goal remained the reunification of the island and stated that republicans were prepared to negotiate how this could be brought about. ``We have a very clear political goal, and our political goal is to see the people of Ireland living in peace and in harmony without the interference of the British government.''

There was a palpable feeling that this was a history-making Sinn Féin visit. The theme, `A great change is at hand, peace, justice and unity', reflected the sense of hope in advance of next week's all-party talks.

There was a warm welcome for the delegation, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Caoimhghín O'Caolain. From Capitol Hill and the White House to the `Ostan Waldorf Astoria' and the Roseland Ballroom in New York City people wanted to make sure they were part of the beginning of the end of the Orange state.

``It's the first time that republican representatives have sat down with the British government since partition nearly 80 years ago,'' said Martin McGuinness.

Reporting these comments, Jim Dwyer in the New York Daily News said, ``Northern Ireland has no constitution. Nothing protects the rights of minorities, or the harmless eccentric. For decades the rule of the `majority' in Northern Ireland was simple bludgeon used against the `minority'. Unionists controlled government jobs, housing, the police, the judiciary and every arm of the government. The civil rights movement rose in the late 1960s and wa put down brutally by the local police [RUC], then by British troops. Then hell broke loose and walked the streets.''

Dwyer continued quoting Adams: ``By the mid-1980s, we sat down and realised this word `peace,' this concept of `peace' had been hijacked from us. We asked the question, `What is peace?' Peace is justice, peace is equality. Peace is the diginity of being able to live in your own place with equality of opportunity, and free from repression, from discrimination, from poverty and foreign occupation.''

The widely read USA Today stated on its front page of Thursday September 4:

``Among Irish-Americans support remains solid for Irish nationalist leader Gerry Adams and for peace talks aimed at ending nearly three decades of strife in Northern Ireland....It is here, in the outreach to Irish Americans, that Adams will make his pitch.'' Deane continued her piece by reporting a meeting between Adams and the editoral board of her newspaper. ``We are here in the US almost as a starting point to our entry into the talks.'' Adams said. ``We need others to help us.'' He also urged Irish-Americans to stay involved in the peace process. ``You can play a direct role in what is happening in Ireland.''

This ``direct role'' was reinforced everywhere the delegation went. It was summed up by Sinn Féin's representative to the US, Mairead Keane who has maintained the Sinn Fein office in Washington for over two years now. It now has American citizens working full time. Keane spoke to An Phoblacht hours after the Sinn Féin leaders had left JFK airport:

``I got the feeling Irish America has been waiting, like us all at home, for these momentous days. The sense of history we experienced last week could almost be physically felt. Everywhere we went, from the White House to the fundraisers, everyone was confident and positive.. This I would put down to all the hard work Irish Americans have done over the past years, particularly all those who regularly do the thankless tasks vital in any struggle. These people are the backbone of our development and political progress. It is vital for us all to move along together. The chance of the people here to hear Sinn Féin's talks strategy is crucial as is the garnering of influential groups' support. I would applaud the White House and President Clinton's even-handed approach to all this especially as we move into unchartered waters.

``We have achieved a lot over the last five days and it is fair to remember a good breakthrough on the economic front.

``We are planning a trade mission to follow this week's visit, spearheaded by Belfast councillor Sean McKnight, who was with us this week. Sinn Féin intends to bring Irish local business people to the US in a few months time. This comes hard on the heels of our very productive meeting with Secretary of Commerce William Daley in Washington last Thursday. Trade links with the underprivileged areas are continuing. Areas like north and west Belfast which bore the brunt of the conflict over the past 27 years must feel they have an economic future and the Commerce Department have a valuable role to play and they have signalled they are going to take a much more pro-active position in the time ahead.''

So as the talks date advances, the mood in the US is being described as one of cautious optimism. While Martin McGuinness was visiting three H Block escapee prisoners on Saturday this cautious optimism was touched upon as he asked for the American judicial system to give them their liberty. ``American authorities should look on people like that as people who are victims of a conflict. They pose no threat to the US,'' he said.

McGuinness later the same day was given the keys of the city of San Francisco by Mayor Willie Brown and remarked that he accepted this honour on behalf of the risen people, particularly those who need the keys to unlock the hundreds of jail cell doors, not only in the US, but in Ireland and Britain.

But maybe the new Cavan/Monaghan TD summed up the mood of the historic trip when he spoke in the packed Roseland ballroom: ``The legacy we will leave behind is an Ireland free from the centre to the sea.''

That the crowds assembled keenly felt the surge forward was reinforced by McGuinness, who added onto O'Caolain's ringing words: ``We assemble here in what is probably the most important time in our country, these coming negotiations are the most important this century.''
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