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Last Updated: Monday, 8 January 2007, 17:32 GMT
Ahern accused of Sinn Fein u-turn

By Shane Harrison
Dublin correspondent, BBC Northern Ireland

The leader of the main opposition party in the Republic of Ireland has accused prime minister Bertie Ahern of doing a u-turn on accepting Sinn Fein backing.

During a radio interview Mr Ahern said he would accept Sinn Fein support for a minority Fianna Fail government in the Irish parliament, the Dail.

But the taoiseach said he would not agree any deal with them in return for votes.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny
Enda Kenny said Bertie Ahern had u-turn on Sinn Fein

Enda Kenny, the leader of Fine Gael, said Mr Ahern had totally "changed" tack on his stance on the party.

The Irish Republic is due to go to the polls by the summer.

Opinion polls suggest that the opposition Fine Gael and Labour alliance, sometimes called the Rainbow Coalition, is currently trailing the Fianna Fail and Progressive Democrats partnership government in the race for power.

So, Enda Kenny is keen to seize on any opportunity to chip away at that lead. And he believes that on Sunday, Mr Ahern provided him with such an opening.

In the course of the interview, with state broadcaster RTE Mr Ahern said: "I don't think it would be reasonable for somebody to go in and say that you wouldn't take support from a party.

"We will not, in Fianna Fail, enter into coalition discussions or a pact with Sinn Fein."

Those remarks prompted Mr Kenny to say the taoiseach had "completely changed tack" on the issue of Sinn Fein and were evidence the Fianna Fail leader no longer believes his coalition with Michael McDowell's Progressive Democrats will have enough seats to form a government.

"The statement by the taoiseach today on RTE radio signals a dramatic shift in position by the Fianna Fail party regarding the acceptance of Sinn Fein support to stay in power.

"In an interview with the Sunday Independent in November 2005 the Fianna Fail position was explained by the taoiseach when he said that 'I would lead my party into opposition' rather than rely on Sinn Fein for support," the Fine Gael leader said.

Bertie Ahern
Bertie Ahern said that he would not enter a coalition with Sinn Fein

Mr Kenny, who said he would have "no truck" with Sinn Fein, called on Michael McDowell, who as justice minister has in the past been highly critical of Sinn Fein and the IRA, to clarify where the Progressive Democrats stood on the issue.

Government sources said the taoiseach made his remarks in the wake of the Northern Bank robbery, the IRA money-laundering investigation and the Robert McCartney murder but that a lot has changed since then.

Mr Kenny acknowledged that Sinn Fein has made progress but said it has yet to complete its journey to full democracy.

"Sinn Fein has yet to declare its full support for the police and judicial systems in Northern Ireland and in this state," he said.

"A number of major crimes perpetrated by the IRA, such as the Northern Bank robbery, and the McCartney and Rafferty murders, have yet to be resolved.

"There is also the issue of the 'on-the-runs' and others still being sought for other serious crimes that have yet to be addressed."

Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, said Mr Ahern would have to change his party's policies before Fianna Fail would get his support.

"It is a farce that we have the wealthiest economy in the EU and yet a crisis right across all the public sectors, but in particular the health service," he said.

With an election expected in May or June the political skirmishes have only just begun.

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