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Monday, 21 January, 2002, 00:56 GMT
Sinn Fein's road to Westminster
Gerry Adams outside Westminster
Sinn Fein MPs refuse to take their seats in the Commons
BBC Northern Ireland correspondent Stephen Walker retraces the steps that led to Sinn Fein setting up offices at the House of Commons.

For years Sinn Fein has viewed Westminster like visitors looking in. On Monday they will become residents with one of London's most desirable postcodes.

As republicans, all four MPs refuse to take their seats and until last month were denied the use of office facilities that other parliamentarians are entitled too.

In 1997, the then speaker Betty Boothroyd ruled that those who refused to take the oath of office would not get office facilities.

Last month's u-turn by MPs means Sinn Fein find themselves at the heart of the political establishment.

West Belfast MP Gerry Adams, first elected in 1983, will have his own office close to many of the Commons committee rooms as will Martin McGuinness, who won the Mid Ulster seat in 1997.

It is a prime location much sought after by other MPs because of its proximity to meeting rooms, the chamber and numerous bars and restaurants.

Wide influence

Such is the demand for space that dozens of MPs and their staff have to use offices tucked away in the streets adjoining Parliament.

Some are being housed in temporary accommodation whilst refurbishments take place.

Where once they were seen as being on the margins of political life, today they are at the heart of it

Party colleagues Pat Doherty and Michelle Gildernew who both won their seats in the general election last June will share an office also inside the main Commons complex.

The development on Monday marks another chapter in the remarkable history of Sinn Fein and reinforces its growing importance and impact on Anglo- Irish relations.

Today the party has influence in the parliaments of Dublin, London and Belfast.

At Westminster the party's tally of four MPs marks its biggest number to date.

In from cold

In Dublin it has a member of the Irish Parliament and in Belfast two ministers sit in the Northern Ireland power sharing executive running the Health and Education departments.

The party has made gains in council seats across Northern Ireland and it is viewed as one of the most well organised and well funded political bodies in Europe.

Houses of Parliament
The Sinn Fein offices are in a prime Commons location
Where once they were seen as being on the margins of political life, today they are at the heart of it.

The move to Westminster will bring with it financial compensation - the party will receive allowances of around 400,000 to run its offices - monies all other MPs are entitled too.

The decision to allow the party offices without its MPs taking their seats predictably brought with it controversy.

Unionist and Conservative MPs claimed the decision marked another concession to republicans.

Register question

Although last month's vote was passed easily, some MPs are concerned that Sinn Fein are currently exempt from the code of conduct and the members register because they don't take the oath of allegiance to the Queen.

A cross party group representing the main parties, Unionists, SNP and Plaid Cymru wants the government to ask Sinn Fein to sign up.

Sinn Fein say they have no problem with a register since their elected representatives in the Northern Ireland assembly already adhere to a series of guidelines.

The party intend to use their new office facilities to convince public and political opinion in Britain that Northern Ireland's future would be better as part of a united Ireland.

Like everything connected to Northern Ireland, interpretation is everything and others see the latest events differently.

Some believe that it is only a matter of time before republicans take their seats at Westminster and change from being outsiders looking in, to insiders looking out.

See also:

21 Jan 02 | Northern Ireland
Sinn Fein moves into Westminster
12 Jun 01 | Northern Ireland
Rise of Sinn Fein
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