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18 December 1997 Edition

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A good moment in history

By Laura Friel

Everyone agreed it was historic, but whether it was good, bad or indifferent depended largely on your perspective. Emerging from No 10 Downing Street after an hour long meeting with Tony Blair, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams described it as ``a good moment in history''.

The fact that the meeting was taking place at all was sufficiently bad news for Unionists. For Ian Paisley it was the ``triumph of terror.'' For UUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson it was ``sickening''. Orange Order Grand Secretary John McCrea described the meeting as ``despicable''.

Publicly, Tony Blair was hedging his bets. For the British PM Sinn Féin's visit to No 10 was a sort of necessary evil. ``I know it's difficult for people when they see Sinn Féin coming into No 10 Downing Street'', said Tony, ``but they have signed up to the Mitchell Principles. They are part of the process. They have got to be treated like other parties.''

For the begrudgers in the media it was all doom and gloom, Michael Collins went to Downing Street and he was shot dead. Gerry Adams was not only facing Tony Blair, he was also ``facing facts''. And according to the media they were decidedly British facts too. ``One key is that Irish unity is not to be found in the foreseeable future,'' said the London Independent.

Sinn Féin's Richard McAuley had the inside story. ``Sinn Féin sees the meeting with Tony Blair as part of a process,'' he said, ``as we went into the meeting Gerry's opening remarks made the point that we were not there simply to put up our stock positions and we hoped that the British government would adopt a similar approach.''

``A leap of imagination'', is what Adams said was needed on the part of the British. He asked Blair to look at Ireland and the relationship between Ireland and Britain and ask what it would be like in five, ten, fifteen years' time. The portraits of three former British Prime Ministers decorate the Cabinet room. It's a quaint English custom, commented Adams, displaying their failures up on the wall.

``The point was made,'' McAuley said, Balfour, Gladstone and Lloyd George all thought they had resolved what they called the Irish Question and we call our British problem, but they hadn't.''

A hundred years later, Sinn Féin was there to address that ``unfinished business''. Two issues really had to be resolved, Adams told the British PM, if a peace settlement was to be achieved. Those two issues are British policy and the Unionist veto.

Martin McGuinness stressed the need for the British government to encourage the unionists to engage in the peace process. Commenting on the role of the `securocrats' McGuinness said the British government needed to ensure politics, and not the old security agenda, dictated British policy.

The delegation raised a number of specific issues which included, political prisoners, spy posts and Bloody Sunday. ``The meeting could be described as cordial and constructive'', McAuley said.

Emerging onto the steps of Downing Street, Adams said he had found a Prime Minister who ``engaged and listened''. ``I think for the first time in my lifetime a British prime minister was able to hear from an Irish republican that the relationship between our two islands, which has meant so much suffering and death and pain and agony, can be put to one side, can become part of our history and that Mr Blair is significantly placed to be the British Prime Minister who brings about a new relationship between the people of these islands.'' The hurt and grief and division, said Adams, which as come from British involvement in our affairs must end.

 

Downing Street protests to continue



By Fern Lane

IT WAS disturbing last Thursday as we stood waving our flags outside Downing Street.

Inside Number 10 our leader was taking tea with a man who represents a government which has pursued violence, killing and maiming in furtherance of its political objectives in Ireland.

Despite our distaste, we knew this was a necessary process and we commended Gerry Adams's moral and physical courage in taking such a massive risk for peace.

We noticed the ease with which Rita Restorick, mother of Stephen, was permitted to pass through the ranks of police in order to hand a Christmas card to Adams.

We wondered if the next time Blair visits Belfast will the mother of, say, Karen Reilly or Peter McBride be allowed to hand him a card asking him if he is genuine about peace and whether he is prepared to put a permanent stop to the violence perpetrated by the military forces under his control.

One of Fuascailt's aims has been to try and translate the latent support which exists among the Irish community in England into tangible political action. A monthly picket outside Downing Street has provided a means by which people here can give expression to their republican ideals as well as supporting POWs.

Attendance at the picket has grown from the 25 or so who stood in the January cold to a regular attendance of 80-100 people. Membership has also increased steadily and a quarterly newsletter was launched in April. The British were, within a few months and as a result of a great deal of hard work by pressure groups and individuals, compelled to close down all but one of the barbarous Special Secure units - Belmarsh. Last Sunday Fuascailt held a demonstration outside that prison to protest.

Fuascailt has also demonstrated at Roisin McAliskey's court hearings, and held pickets outside the German Embassy and the Lufthansa offices in London.

The campaign has also accommodated visiting relatives, fundraised, lobbied government departments, attended trials and court appearances to offer encouragement, and on one occasion staged a sit-down protest outside the Northern Ireland Office which brought the London traffic to a complete standstill.

The PTA, however, remains in force despite lobbying all the political parties during the election campaign. This legislation deters many people from becoming more involved in political action.

Fuascailt have tried to counter the fear of arrest and harassment with a second edition of its PTA card, offering advice and information for anyone arrested under the Act

The group's priority remains the POW's. Despite claims by the government that it is acting ``with all haste'' on the transfer of Irish prisoners, the 23-year men cannot even apply for transfer until they have their tariffs set.

Fuascailt will still be at Downing Street, waving their flags, every month until every Irish political prisoners has been released.

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