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February 15, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Anne Cadwallader BELFAST – A week of intensive meetings between the Republican leadership and its rank-and-file in both Sinn Fein and the IRA is under way in the run-up to next weekend’s special ard fheis. Meanwhile, schisms continue to deepen within Unionism as campaigners in favor of the Belfast Agreement appear to be cementing their support.

As first reported in the Echo more than a week ago, the Sinn Fein ard fheis, to be held at the RDS in Dublin on Sunday, is expected to result in support for the May 22 referenda and an announcement that Sinn Fein politicians would sit in the new Assembly at Stormont.

To lend support for the Belfast Agreement, signed on Good Friday, leading members of the African National Congress visited Northern Ireland last weekend, appearing at rallies and meeting republican prisoners.

Cyril Ramaphosa of the ANC said it had not been easy to negotiate with the leaders of apartheid, but there was no realistic alternative to talks and accommodation with your enemies to find peace.

Another visitor to Belfast was former Stormont talks chairman and former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, accompanied by his wife, Heather, and 6-month-old son, Andrew. Mitchell was given an honorary doctorate at Trinity College Dublin and spoke at a number of meetings urging support for his agreement.

At a rally on May 3 to mark the 17th anniversary of the hunger strike, Sinn Fein’s president, Gerry Adams, and a leading republican ex-prisoner, Bik McFarlane, who controlled the 1981 hunger strikes from within the Maze Prison, both spoke of the need to go forward united.

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Adams said those who were calling for the decommissioning of the IRA had no understanding of the reality experienced by Nationalists and that the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, would have to do business with Sinn Fein on the basis of equality.

He said he understood the anxieties republicans had about the Stormont Agreement, but there was nothing in it to concern them. “We are still subversives,” he said, “dedicated to the end of British rule in Ireland”.

Despite all the confusion, challenges and difficult decisions, it was imperative to keep the long-term aim of the republican movement – Irish freedom – in focus, said Adams.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam has said decommissioning is an essential part of the peace package, while Trimble said this week Sinn Fein could not serve in the proposed power-sharing executive unless the IRA decommissioned and disbanded.

Trimble said the IRA’s “active service units” would have to be disbanded before Sinn Fein could take its seats on the executive. He said he would not tolerate the “arrival in office of unreconstructed terrorists.”

The Orange Order is to meet the British prime minister, Tony Blair, later this week after it voted to oppose the deal. The organization is opposed to early prisoner releases, reform of the RUC and the right of Sinn Fein to take seats on the proposed executive.

Grand Master Robert Saulters will lead the Orange delegation to London On a Twelfth platform two years ago, Saulters called Blair a “traitor” to Protestantism for marrying a Catholic.

The Order’s chief executive, George Patton, said he did not think the meeting would make much difference, since the vast majority of its membership is vehemently opposed to the agreement.

One Orange Order hardliner, Joel Patton, opposed the meeting taking place at all and accused Blair of treating the Order with disdain and “utter contempt” and that Unionism was deeply divided.

The “No” campaign continued apace this week with Robert McCartney of the UK Unionists announcing he would be seeking more access to television, radio and newspapers after research showed the balance was tipped towards the “Yes” camp.

His research indicated the BBC gave the pro-Agreement lobby 70 percent airtime, while UTV gave it 72 percent. The Belfast Telegraph gave it 78 percent, the Irish News 74 percent and the Newsletter 44 percent.

An independent “Yes” campaign got under way this week, gaining _155,000 in financial backing. At its launch, Terry Enright, whose son was murdered by loyalists earlier this year, said his message to those arguing against was “go away, go away.”

The latest opinion poll shows one-third of voters on each side of the border are undecided, with opposition strongest in Northern Ireland. Of Protestants, only 31 percent indicated they intended to vote “Yes,” compared to 80 percent of Catholics.

Altogether in Northern Ireland, 52 percent said they would vote “Yes” compared to 14 percent saying “No.” In the Republic, 61 percent said they would vote to approve the deal, with 32 percent undecided.

The “Yes” vote in the Unionist camp were bolstered this week when three Unionist-dominated councils supported them, with only one, DUP-dominated Castlereagh, against.

Two UUP dissident MPs clashed with the local constituency parties. Willie Ross (Londonderry East) and William Thompson (West Tyrone) both had altercations with their home supporters, but neither changes their anti-Agreement stand.

In a bid to boost his support, Trimble said the Agreement “slammed the door” on Dublin and gives his party a stronger veto. He said the “No” campaign was floundering and accused it of “wickedness” and “stupidity.”

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