22 February 2006

White House may receive Sinn Fein on St Patrick's Day

Times Online

From Tom Baldwin in Washington
February 22, 2006

THE White House is ready to put Sinn Fein leaders back on its St Patrick’s Day party list next month.

But the US Administration is adamant that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness will not be granted a personal meeting with President Bush, nor allowed to use the trip for fund-raising.

The Times has learnt that Mitchell Reiss, the President’s special envoy to Northern Ireland, is reluctantly recommending that Sinn Fein be invited to the annual Shamrock ceremony at the White House on March 17.

Last year, amid bitter controversy over the IRA’s role in the £27.5 million Northern Bank robbery and continued paramilitary violence, Mr Bush snubbed Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness. Instead, he met the relatives of Robert McCartney, who was murdered by alleged members of the IRA after a pub brawl in Belfast.

Relations have since improved slightly following the IRA’s declaration that it had abandoned its armed struggle. There has also been concerted lobbying from Republican congressmen, with large numbers of Irish-American voters, for the ban to be lifted ahead of November’s mid-term elections.

But Mr Bush remains deeply suspicious of Sinn Fein leaders, who he compared last year with Yassir Arafat, the late Palestinian leader. Nor does he want to be seen consorting with anyone associated with terrorism.

The State Department yesterday insisted that no final decision about the St Patrick’s Day invitation list had been taken. But other sources said that Sinn Fein and other Northern Ireland parties will be asked to the White House.

Mr Reiss and the National Security Council are also determined to stop Mr Adams using his US visit for fundraising.

British officials are delighted by the robust White House stance towards Sinn Fein.

Mr Reiss has recently had stern words for Sinn Fein over its continued refusal to accept new Northern Ireland policing structures. He said: “Sinn Fein is the only political party in Europe that does not support policing. By denying republicans and nationalists proper policing and justice, Sinn Fein has condemned them to a ghettoised existence.

“The Sinn Fein leadership admit that they go to the police if they have car accidents. So now we know: they put their no claims bonuses ahead of a child’s right to justice and protection. So much for their Ireland of equals.”

Mr Reiss also met the Rafferty family who were in Washington this month to draw attention to the murder of their father, Joseph, by alleged members of the IRA in a similar episode to Mr McCartney.

The US pressure group Friends of Sinn Fein had hoped that Mr Adams would be the star attraction at a dinner with some of the businesses, trade unions and individuals who donate around $1 million a year to the cause.

Although American donations to Sinn Fein have diminished over the years, they still account for most of Sinn Fein’s legitimate income. Unlike other British parties, those from Northern Ireland are allowed to raise money outside the EU and do not have to register donors’ names.

The Northern Ireland Office recently announced plans to phase out this exemption by 2010. From October 2007 the parties will also have to tell the Electoral Commission who has given them more than £5,000.

Mr Adams was reported in November as describing the ban on his fundraising as “absurd” and “amateurish”.

But Sinn Fein is said to be concerned that if Mr Adams or Mr McGuinness breach the terms of their visas, it would create a precedent that could halt the frequent trips that they have made to the US over the past ten years.

GOING GREEN

::Since the 1990s, Irish Governments have presented the US President with a bowl of shamrock in an annual St Patrick’s Day ceremony

::Representatives from all Ireland’s political parties usually attend

::In 2001 President Bush angered Roman Catholics by inviting the Rev Ian Paisley

::In 2000 Seamus Heaney read his poetry. President Clinton, a fan, was seen mouthing along to the words

::In 1995 President Clinton was criticised when he invited Gerry Adams to visit the celebrations for the first time

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