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Commentary: Writing on wall for Sinn Fein

By
GARY KENT

LONDON, Oct. 4 (UPI) -- The police raid Friday on Sinn Fein's offices in Stormont -- the Northern Ireland seat of government -- and houses in West Belfast may lead to the political wing of the Irish Republican Army being expelled from the province's government.

The British government of Prime Minister Tony Blair has always regarded the involvement of Sinn Fein in local government as a crucial corner-stone of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought the hope of peace between Northern Ireland's 900,000 Protestants and 600,000 Catholics. However, Sinn Fein's credibility as a political body that has eschewed violence and terrorism is now more threatened than ever before.

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The police are looking for forensic links between Sinn Fein and the raid last year on the Police Special Branch headquarters in Castlereagh, East Belfast, which netted important intelligence documents.

The Catholic nationalist IRA has been accused of organizing this raid, possibly in combination with others, including rogue police officers but Sinn Fein has persistently denied this. The police raid coincides with the beginning of the trial of three Irish men in Bogota, Colombia, over allegations that they were training the narco-terrorist FARC organization.

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If any link is established between Sinn Fein and the theft of the intelligence documents from the police headquarters and if the IRA is found to be involved in assisting FARC, Sinn Fein's commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means will be shattered.

It is possible, in these circumstances, that the moderate Catholic nationalist Social and Democratic Labor Party will unite with the Protestant Ulster Unionists in agreeing to exclude Sinn Fein from the Power-Sharing Executive that rules Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein is already under considerable pressure over continued IRA intimidation of Catholics. The IRA shot a Catholic bus driver Sunday who only survived because he resisted. The IRA also ferociously beat a young student severely in South Armagh Tuesday. The victim's father accused the IRA of being a "Hitler Machine" and described how they "put him on the ground and systematically smashed and shattered all the bones in his lower legs and ankles, both arms, hands and wrists with sledgehammers, iron bars and nail-studded sticks.

"They tried to amputate his left hand by repeatedly bringing a sledgehammer down on it. They took most of the skin off the back of his head and body with the

nail-studded sticks. They then left him lying on the road to bleed to death." However, the young man survived.

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The police raid Friday, coming so soon after the two shocking attacks, suggests the British authorities' patience with the IRA and Sinn Fein may now be exhausted. if that is the case, Northern Ireland's politics and peace process may be in for upheavals in the days ahead. And Sinn Fein's days in the province's government may be running out.

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Gary Kent is London correspondent of the Belfast-based magazine Fortnight.

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