By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Four Sinn Fein MPs took up residence in Parliament Monday, occupying three of the best offices in the centuries-old building and paying a visit to the British prime minister, Tony Blair, for good measure.
Later, speaking at a packed press conference at the House of Commons, the Sinn Fein president and MP for West Belfast, Gerry Adams, said there are some things in politics one can be certain of, and Sinn Fein never taking an oath of allegiance, and thus its actual seats in Parliament, remains one of them.
The British government has relaxed laws brought in to prevent Sinn Fein’s MPs taking their seats without first affirming an oath of allegiance to the British monarchy, despite opposition from within and outside the government party, Labor.
“It’s only important as the opportunity to get what was always our entitlement and to build a beachhead to argue for our constituents positions but also to argue for a united Ireland,” the Sinn Fein president said.
Adams said the move also allowed his party to engage with public and political opinion on the British mainland. Sinn Fein would use its offices to “pursue the causes of peace and justice,” he said.
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Along with phones, offices, facilities and an influential place at the heart of the British establishment, the party will also benefit from _500,000 annually in funding from the State, which it says will be used exclusively for constituency business.
Opponents to the move complain that Sinn Fein has given no commitments in return for the privileges, but the government says the move will encourage Sinn Fein to become more integrated into the British democratic processes.
“The whole thing stinks” was the response of the Conservative shadow spokesman on Northern Ireland, Quentin Davies, accusing Blair of appeasing republicans.
Other MPs said the Sinn Fein offices should be electronically bugged, to which Adams replied that he assumed all government offices, and phones made available to his party, were bugged. “We’re just better at finding them,” he said.
Before meeting Blair at Downing Street, Adams said the British government had failed to deal adequately with recent loyalist violence, saying that the British had created loyalist paramilitaries for counter-insurgency purposes to defeat republicans.
“The British prime minister has to face up to the reality that the threat to the peace process comes from within loyalism and agencies of the British state that have run loyalist death squads,” he said.
After the meeting, Adams said that it was “fair to say” that Blair did not have any answers to Sinn Fein’s concerns. He accused the Police Service of Northern Ireland of tolerating the loyalist bombing campaign.
Back in Ireland, Adams responded to internal dissension during an Sinn Fein activist meeting in Navan, Co. Meath.
Members were told in a confidential internal party discussion document that “previously suppressed doubts” about Sinn Fein’s peace strategy are now being expressed in the wake of the IRA’s disarmament move last October.
The seven-page discussion document, outlining how republicans could achieve their goal of a united Ireland, observed these opinions were being expressed as the British government dragged its feet over demilitarization, police reforms and loyalist attacks.
“Many republicans are concerned that Tony Blair is either dishonest or insincere in his negotiated agreements with Sinn Fein or he is in thrall to the rejectionists within his own government system,” the document said.
“Republican activists are now asking questions about the ultimate intentions of the British government toward the peace process. Doubts about the peace strategy are now being heard. Some recent discussions, after the latest IRA initiative, have demonstrated some republicans are questioning the support they have given.”
The discussion paper, entitled “A Road Map to the Republic,” calls on republicans to devise a more cohesive strategy aimed at persuading unionists and British public opinion of the logic of a united Ireland.
“We also should strive to convince the British Government that it should act in its own long-term interests and become persuaders for Irish unity,” it says, arguing that a united Ireland, while not imminent, would happen in the foreseeable future.