LONDON -- Protestant political parties in Northern Ireland voted down a proposal yesterday to allow Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political wing, to participate in peace talks before the IRA has given up any of its weapons.
The vote was expected and it represents a setback for the British and Irish governments, which put forward the proposal and thereby won IRA agreement last weekend to a new cease-fire in the province.
But British officials are banking on the possibility that the Ulster Unionists, the largest of the Protestant parties, will change its mind before the peace talks resume Sept. 15 or that some means will be found to accommodate their concerns.
If no solution to the impasse is found by September, Britain intends to continue the peace process by other means.
Most likely, officials say, this would involve proximity talks, in which the parties do not sit together but negotiate indirectly through British officials.
The main participants would be the Ulster Unionists and the predominantly Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party and the smaller Sinn Fein.
Small Protestant parties allied to Protestant paramilitary groups also would be expected to participate.
They have been critical of parties that announced earlier in the week that they were walking out of the peace talks.
David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, has said his party will not walk out of the peace talks and will continue negotiations with the British government to try to find a way out of the impasse.
However, he said it is necessary for the IRA to demonstrate its peaceful intent by starting to disarm.
The British-Irish proposal that was voted down stated that disarming should take place parallel to the peace talks but left vague the question of when it should begin. John Alderdice, leader of the Alliance Party, the only party to attract support from both moderate Protestants and Catholics, said the unionist bloc had hurt itself, and the wider negotiating effort.
"They think that by voting 'no' they can stop the process and reverse it in their direction.
"It's insanely stupid. It only ensures that Sinn Fein will be in the talks process with no agreement on decommissioning at all," Alderdice said.
Pub Date: 7/24/97