Major unionist party spurns Northern Ireland peace talks But Sinn Fein is seated at talks for first time


BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- The political wing of the Catholic Irish Republican Army joined the Northern Ireland peace talks for the first time yesterday, but five Protestant parties stayed away, delaying the start of all-party negotiations.

Former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell, who is chairing the talks aimed at ending decades of strife in the British-ruled province, left the negotiations in the late afternoon to meet with unionist leaders in an attempt to bring them into the talks, possibly as early as today.

"We've made some progress" in bringing all the parties to the table, said Mo Mowlan, Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, after the day's talks ended.

David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, the largest unionist party, is seeking assurances that negotiations on the surrender of weapons by the IRA and presumably by Protestant paramilitary groups will take place at the same time as the political talks.

The IRA has said it will not surrender any weapons until a political settlement is agreed upon. Sinn Fein insists it is a separate entity from the IRA rather than its political wing and thus has no influence on the IRA's actions.

The distinction is widely rejected here.

Trimble also wants a guarantee that any political settlement will go to a vote in Northern Ireland only, rather than in the Republic of Ireland as well. The IRA prefers a vote in the republic, too.

Sinn Fein was joined in the talks by the moderate Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party, the moderate Alliance Party, which crosses religious and ideological lines, the Women's Coalition and the small Labor Party.

Chances appear good that the Ulster Unionists will eventually show up, but avoid meeting directly with Sinn Fein.

Pub Date: 9/16/97

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