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Monday, 21 January, 2002, 17:01 GMT
Sinn Fein have 'arrived'
Sinn Fein MPs Michele Gildermew, Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams and Pat Doherty
Major step forward for Sinn Fein
Nick Assinder

Sinn Fein's move into the House of Commons was always going to be both significant and highly controversial.

But the timing - on the day Gerry Adams and his team also met Tony Blair in Downing Street - served to ensure the event won the maximum exposure.

Queen at the state opening of parliament
MPs refuse to take oath
Tories and Unionists were already up in arms that the government had changed the rules to allow the party's four MPs to occupy offices in Westminster and draw allowances of 107,000 a year each.

And they immediately made the link between the occasion and the meeting with the prime minister to claim it was another piece of government appeasement to the spokesmen for terrorists.

They drove home their attack that the peace process was turning into a one way street, with all the traffic going in Sinn Fein's direction.

No oath

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, meanwhile, were at their most statesmanlike - but there was no hiding their delight at their new status.

They have given press conferences in the Commons before, of course, but this one was particularly special.

In a sense, it marked the fact that they had "arrived" as a force and were now part of the fabric of British democracy.

They insisted they had only been given what was their right and made it plain they still had no intention of taking their seats and the oath of allegiance to the Queen.

And Mr Adams could not resist using the occasion of a press conference in the inappropriately-named Jubilee Room at the Commons to accuse the security services of dirty tricks in Northern Ireland.

But what particularly dismayed opponents of the move was the fact that the prime minister allowed himself to be part of what they saw as a political stunt.

Blair's backing

Downing Street insisted that Mr Blair always tried to see any of the participants in the Northern Ireland peace process whenever they were in town.

He would be meeting Unionist David Trimble on Tuesday, it was pointed out.

But there was no getting away from the fact that the meeting appeared to give the Sinn Fein development added significance.

And the fact is, the prime minister does see the decision to allow Sinn Fein into the Palace of Westminster as part of the peace process.

His spokesman declared that the prime minister was still eager to "take risks for peace".

"He understands for many people in NI and here that this process has been the result of very real pain and many people feel very strongly about what has happened.

"But his view is that it has saved many lives so its worthwhile. How Sinn Fein presents this meeting is a matter for them," he said.

But the already cracked cross-party consensus on the peace process has undoubtedly been further widened by this event.

See also:

21 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Sinn Fein moves into Westminster
21 Jan 02 | Northern Ireland
Sinn Fein's road to Westminster
18 Dec 01 | UK Politics
Head-to-head: Sinn Fein offices
13 Dec 01 | UK Politics
Sinn Fein 'to get Commons offices'
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