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The Guardian: Sinn Féin moves to bury past

· Leadership wins crucial vote on policing board
· Adams warns dissident republican groups
Owen Bowcott in Dublin
Monday February 20, 2006
Sinn Féin signalled yesterday that it was closer to joining Northern Ireland's policing board when hardline proposals to reject a deal were defeated at its annual conference.
The vote on one of the most sensitive political issues facing the republican movement exposed tensions within the party over closer involvement with a force that was its enemy throughout the Troubles.
The British government regards Sinn Féin's ability to overcome its distrust as necessary for the restoration of devolution. The party discussion came before a fresh round of political talks starting in Belfast today to revive the Stormont assembly. The prime minister had been due to attend, but Downing Street cancelled the trip, a sign that it recognised further groundwork was required.
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In Sinn Féin's policing debate one motion – which was lost – had opposed the party joining the policing board until “a timetable for British withdrawal” had been agreed. “Republicans should not be enforcing the armed wing of British rule in this country,” said a delegate.
Gerry Kelly, on the party executive, condemned the decision to hand over to MI5 responsibility for national security in Northern Ireland, including threats from republicans.
“The police force has been a partisan, political, protestant and paramilitary force,” he said. “Republicans will not be badgered or forced into accepting less than the new beginning to policing promised in the Good Friday agreement.”
Party leaders won the vote to delay a decision on the issue until a special delegate conference. Last week the government published a Northern Ireland bill which proposes devolving policing and justice to a new assembly.
Around 1,000 delegates were at the party's first conference since the IRA announced it had destroyed its weapons. The only recently released prisoner to win a standing ovation was Michael O'Seighin, a community activist jailed for preventing the oil company Shell building a pipeline across his land in County Mayo.
The Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams, reminded republicans there was no going back to violence. “The decisions by the IRA were undoubtedly deeply difficult for many,” he said. “There are republicans still trying to come to terms with it many months later.
“Indeed, there are some who believe that the IRA has made a mistake. They are entitled to their opinion but to no more than that. No one should harbour the notion that the republican struggle can be advanced any further by armed campaign. The leadership is firmly opposed to such a departure.”
He warned dissident republican groups to “look objectively at the political situation” and “carefully consider your options”.
The conference was focused, however, on the electoral advances the party is confident of making at the next Irish general election. Sinn Féin holds five seats – mainly won since the IRA's ceasefire – in the Dáil, the republic's parliament.
Ireland's system of proportional representation could put Sinn Féin in a future coalition government. “Kingmakers” was the headline in one newspaper, accompanying a picture of Gerry Adams and the party chairman, Mitchel McLaughlin.
Several motions from branches in the republic attempted to rule out deals with “rightwing parties” or a Fianna Fáil-led government. But the party's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness MP, warned against tying the leadership's hand before a campaign.
“I have the advantage of having been in coalition,” he said, “with unionists [in the power-sharing executive at Stormont]. As minister of education I abolished the 11-plus exam. The future of our children would have been pretty dismal without that reform.”
Attempts to block deals with specific parties were defeated, although one motion, requiring Sinn Féin to “insist upon the repeal of the Offences Against the State Act as a condition to entering any coalition government” scraped through.
The decision by the Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, to deny elected representatives from Northern Ireland the right to speak in the Dáil was condemned by Mr Adams as “nothing less than bad faith”.

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