Dissidents play down SF talks plan
There was uncertainty on Friday night over planned talks between Sinn Fein and dissident republicans after the breakaway group played down the prospect of discussions.
Sinn Fein 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 Fein seemed set to appeal to dissidents to end their campaign in face-to-face talks.
The so-called 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 Londonderry police station.
Dissident groups have also targeted mainstream republicans in Sinn Fein, but Gerry Kelly, a junior minister for Sinn Fein 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 Fein 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 Fein of seeking publicity.
Dissidents have rejected the peace process, plus the compromises at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement and St Andrews Agreement which laid the foundations for the Assembly and led to Sinn Fein's decision to accept the reformed Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has been among the most outspoken critics of dissident groups, who he famously branded "traitors to Ireland". Sinn Fein has, however, repeatedly offered to meet dissidents to explain their policies and to argue for an end to violence.
Ulster Unionist spokesman on policing Basil McCrea said: "Sinn Fein'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 Fein know who these people are, and it is time they put the safety of all the people of Northern Ireland first."
Gerry Kelly, however, said there was an urgent need for dialogue, with dissidents continuing to mount attacks. 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. 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.