DUBLIN, Ireland -- With a parade of paroled prisoners, hours of impassioned speeches, and a few lopsided votes, Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political wing, overwhelmingly backed the Northern Ireland peace agreement yesterday.
The hard-line party that has opposed British rule in Northern Ireland for decades vowed to campaign for the peace deal before a May 22 public referendum.
Sinn Fein also voted to ditch its policy of boycotting government bodies, paving the way for its leaders to serve in the proposed 108-member Northern Ireland Assembly, even though it will be under continued British jurisdiction. The vote was 331-19.
"We are forever moving forward and like every other party are moving into uncharted territory," Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said.
"Today we cleared the way for the future. Tomorrow we start to build the future," Adams told 1,000 cheering delegates.
Seven other political parties have already backed the deal that was brokered by the British and Irish governments and which seeks to balance the aspirations of majority Protestants, most of whom want to remain British, and minority Roman Catholics, who mainly want to unite the island.
But the peace accord, signed April 10, falls short of Sinn Fein's goal of a united Ireland. The agreement leaves the six northern counties under Great Britain's control, although it envisions new links with the Irish Republic in the south.
Sinn Fein accepted the inevitable compromise, something that would have been inconceivable in the early 1990s. The party has sought to gain respectability at the polls, in the press and in the corridors of power, as its leaders acquire invitations to meet with presidents and prime ministers.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair welcomed Sinn Fein's vote, but also noted that the endorsement was a commitment to nonviolence.
"This means Sinn Fein has signed up to the agreement in its entirety and its basic principles," his office said in a statement. "It also means it has signed up to a process in which there is no place whatsoever for violence or the threat of violence."
Five years ago, Sinn Fein held its major political gathering inside a rain-soaked tent. Yesterday, it staged its dramatic ballot inside the book-lined Royal Dublin Society hall. The meeting was so polite, even the few dissidents who spoke out against the agreement were applauded.
The party also played to its faithful with what amounted to a living display of the IRA, as 14 prisoners who received weekend paroles from the British and Irish governments were called to the dais to show their support for the peace accord.
Among those to appear was Padraig Wilson, who is serving a 26-year sentence on a weapons charge. Wilson is the commanding officer among the IRA prisoners who are housed outside Belfast at Britain's jail for terrorists, the Maze.
"Our struggle is not over," Wilson said. "There is a lengthy road ahead."
The bleachers in the hall shook with foot-stomping and cheering when the so-called Balcombe Street Gang appeared. Four middle-aged men who have each spent more than 23 years in British jails for a lethal bombing campaign against the British establishment in London in the 1970s made a dramatic entrance.
Hugh Doherty, Harry Duggan, Joe O'Connell and Eddie Butler, recently transferred to an Irish jail, wore wrinkled coats and broad smiles. They pumped their fists in the air and hugged Sinn Fein's political leaders, including Adams. One of the speakers even called the four "our Nelson Mandelas."
"It was a great delight," Adams said.
The fate of hundreds of prisoners from Northern Ireland's terrorist troubles remains a contentious issue. The peace deal envisions releases within two years for those prisoners who are allied with parties that have signed the accord.
Other former prisoners made dramatic pleas in shepherding the agreement past the party membership.
Joe Cahill, 78, who killed a police officer and had a death sentence commuted in 1942, and who was caught running weapons from Libya in the 1970s, said: "I believe those who sacrificed their lives would think, as I do, this is the best opportunity we ever had of bringing about the Ireland they died for."
Gerry Kelly, a bomber who terrorized London, led a mass escape from the Maze and transformed himself into a political leader with Sinn Fein, said the deal would enable the party to carry on its struggle for a united Ireland with the Northern Ireland Assembly.
"We need to put as many rebels amongst our opponents and take them on any way we can," he said.
Sinn Fein, though, has been forced to look over its shoulder in recent days as an IRA dissident group -- called the New IRA -- has vowed to launch a terror campaign against the British political leadership.
"There was no new group set up this weekend," Adams said. "That group was set up months ago."
The old IRA hasn't gone away, either. Although the guerrillas have maintained a cease-fire, they have announced that they won't be handing in any weapons, as envisioned by the peace deal.
"Sinn Fein is not an armed group," Adams said. "We are not the IRA. We want to see all the guns taken out of Irish politics and we will continue to work for that. We go into this next phase of struggle armed only with whatever mandate we receive, armed only with our political ideas and our vision of the future."
Adams also emphasized that yesterday's votes do not mean that Sinn Fein accepts the right of Northern Ireland to exist, even though he is now free to help govern it.
Pub Date: 5/11/98