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Sinn Fein in Dublin, Gerry Adams

Sinn Fein endorses N. Ireland peace accord

Adams addresses party members during Sinn Fein's conference Sunday

May 10, 1998 Web posted at: 1:28 p.m. EDT (1728 GMT)

DUBLIN, Ireland (CNN) -- The Northern Ireland peace process got a crucial boost Sunday when the nationalist Sinn Fein party, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, endorsed the new peace accord for the troubled province. The peace deal will be put to a vote both north and south of the Irish border on May 22.

Sinn Fein's party conference also voted in favor of amending its constitution so that Sinn Fein representatives will be able to take their seats in new Northern Ireland institution to be created under the peace accord, which was agreed upon during multi-party peace talks in April.

In a fundamental reversal of decades-old policy, 331 out of 350 party delegates voted in support of Party President Gerry Adams' recommendation that they accept their place in a new Belfast administration.

Other party leaders also argued that Sinn Fein had to sit in the proposed 108-seat Assembly in Belfast, which would be overseen by a 12-strong executive body composed of representatives from several parties, including Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein negotiator Martin McGuinness, left, and Adams, right, welcome Hugh Doherty, an IRA prisoner released to attend the Sinn Fein party conference

"Going into the Assembly is the right tactic at this time," said Gerry Kelly, a legendary former IRA mastermind of London car bombs and prison breaks who is now a Sinn Fein negotiator.

He said Protestants had pushed hard in the 22 months of negotiations to create a new Northern Ireland government on the assumption that Sinn Fein would choose to boycott it.

"We need to put as many rebels as we can in amongst our opponents and to take them on in every way," Kelly said.

However, Adams emphasized that the decision wouldn't mean Sinn Fein accepted the right of Northern Ireland to exist -- a key issue that underlay decades of sectarian bloodshed and killings.

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Addressing the conference shortly before the vote, Adams stressed the importance of the day for the republican cause.

"In terms of the republican struggle, it's a watershed day, a historical day," he said.

In an apparent attempt to boost chances for Sinn Fein approval of the peace agreement, British authorities had temporarily released senior republican prisoners, including Padraic Wilson, the IRA's leader in Belfast's Maze prison, so they could attend the party conference.

The prisoners, who play a leading role in Sinn Fein and IRA policy, clearly came out in favor of the accord.

Other key parties in Northern Ireland, including the pro-British Unionist Party, have already supported the peace accord, but Sinn Fein's vote is seen as critical if the peace process is to survive.

British Finance Minister Gordon Brown told British television he would on Tuesday announce a financial package worth more than 100 million pounds ($160 million) to underpin the deal.

Brown said it would concentrate on providing new investment for Northern Ireland businesses and work and training opportunities for the long-term unemployed in Northern Ireland.

"I believe people will see this ... as a strategy for the development of the Northern Irish economy," Chancellor of the Exchequer Brown said.

The Irish and British governments, which played a key mediation role in the period leading to the April peace accord, are hoping the agreement will pave the way for a political accommodation that will be acceptable to both the 60 percent pro-British, Protestant majority and the Roman Catholic minority in the province.

The main paramilitary groups on both sides of the divided community have declared cease-fires, but smaller groups of dissidents continue to wage a low-level struggle.

A mortar bomb exploded during a security alert in a Northern Irish village overnight but no one was injured, local media said.

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