Dissidents play down North talks


There is uncertainty this evening over planned talks between Sinn Féin and dissident republicans after the breakaway group played down the prospect of discussions.

Sinn Féin said it was set for talks with the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, seen as the political wing of the Real IRA paramilitary organisation.

There are fears that dissidents violently opposed to the peace process are stepping-up their attacks, and Sinn Féin seemed set to appeal to dissidents to end their campaign in face-to-face talks.

The Real IRA group is responsible for a string of attacks including the infamous Omagh bombing of 1998, plus this week’s car bomb attack on a Derry police station.

Dissident groups have also targeted mainstream republicans in Sinn Féin, but today Gerry Kelly, a junior minister for Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing Assembly, said he would lead a party delegation to meet the 32 County Sovereignty Movement within weeks.

“We have been very clear that we are prepared to talk with these groups, and that they have the absolute right to disagree with the Sinn Féin strategy,” he said. “What we have got is an answer back from the 32 County Sovereignty Movement. I will lead a delegation.”

The 32 County Sovereignty Movement later, however, played down the expectation of talks. It said it believed discussions were to focus on issues surrounding dissident republican prisoners held in Maghaberry prison in Co Antrim.

It claimed no firm arrangement on a wider meeting was yet agreed and accused Sinn Féin of seeking publicity. The group added: “We remain focused and will not be distracted in organising on behalf of the prisoners and their families.”

Dissidents have rejected the peace process, plus the compromises at the heart of the Belfast Agreement and St Andrews Agreement which laid the foundations for the Assembly and led to Sinn Fein’s decision to accept the reformed PSNI.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has been among the most outspoken critics of dissident groups, who he famously branded “traitors to Ireland”.

Sinn Féin has repeatedly offered to meet dissidents to explain their policies and to argue for an end to violence.

However, Ulster Unionist spokesperson on policing Basil McCrea said: “Sinn Féin’s acceptance that the Real IRA has an ‘absolute right’ to disagree with their strategy must be qualified by outright condemnation of their murderous intent.

“Furthermore, there is no doubt in my mind that those within Sinn Féin know who these people are, and it is time they put the safety of all the people of Northern Ireland first.”

Mr Kelly said there was an urgent need for dialogue, with dissidents continuing to mount attacks.

Last Tuesday’s 200lb car bomb in Derry targeted the Strand Road police station and caused widespread damage to neighbouring buildings.

A taxi driver was hijacked at gunpoint and forced to deliver the bomb. Police said it was a miracle no one was injured as the device exploded earlier than the bombers had predicted, with the bomb detonating while police were still evacuating people from the area.

On Wednesday a booby-trap bomb placed under a soldier’s car in Co Down fell from the vehicle outside his home, but did not detonate. Police said the army major was very lucky to have escaped serious injury or death.

Mr Kelly told the BBC: “These small groups have the ability to do damage. Two or three people can do a lot of damage if they go undetected and they have the expertise.”

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams had challenged political organisations associated with dissident republican groups to meet him for discussions about the way ahead for republicanism.

“The fact is that there is now no place on this island for political violence. There is a peaceful and democratic way for serious people who want to see a united Ireland," he said.

“There is a peaceful strategy and people can disagree until the cows come home about elements of it but there is no space for these incidents or for any armed actions of any kind.” Mr Adams said none of the armed groups who had launched attacks this week was prepared to put forward representatives to explain their position.