Ireland’s new foreign affairs minister Dermot Ahern tonight said he looked forward to the day when Sinn Féin is in government in both parts of Ireland.

Mr Ahern, speaking after his first official meeting with Britain’s Direct Ruler in the North, Paul Murphy, went further than any other Irish Cabinet minister to date, saying that Sinn Féin would one day be in government in Dublin and Belfast.

Any suggestion of republicans gaining power has remained virtually taboo in the South, where Sinn Féin has long suffered censorship, marginalisation and demonisation.

Ahern’s party, Fianna Fail, has refused to accept Sinn Féin as a coalition partner.

Mr Ahern said: “Obviously circumstances will change, there will come a time I envisage where Sinn Féin will be in government in the republic as they will be in the north and I hope that happens in the future.”

Mr Ahern said he believed it was only a matter of time before this takes place.

“But until such time as the IRA demonstrably show that they have put down arms forever and a day there cannot be two armies. That’s the reality and it’s the same in the north as it is in the republic.”

Mr Ahern was responding to journalists’ questions about the consequences of full and conclusive weapons decommissioning by the IRA.

It is a long-standing ambition of Sinn Féin to enter government in both the 26 Counties and the Six Counties as part of its continuing move into mainstream politics.

Unionist hardliners, fearing that eventuality, have made efforts to undermine the Ministerial power which would be enjoyed by Sinn Féin in any restored power-sharing administration in the North.

Ahern’s comments will be seen as a move to broach the possibility a Fianna Fail-Sinn Féin coalition, and will be a warning to the small right-wing Progressive Democrats, led by Mary Harney, which has claimed a share of power with Fianna Fail for the past six years.

Long dismissed as insignificant, Sinn Féin now ranks equally with Labour as the third-largest in the South in terms of popular support. Following the next Dail general election, expected in 2006, the party is set to hold the balance of power between the existing coalition government and a ‘rainbow’ opposition alternative. Without Sinn Féin support, neither putative coalition is likely to have sufficient representation to form a government.

Responding to Ahern’s comments, Sinn Féin Assembly group leader Conor Murphy said he was only acknowledging the reality that, with its increasing electoral mandate, Sinn Féin would serve in a Dublin government in the future.

“However, any participation by Sinn Féin in a coalition will be determined by our party membership and by whether such a course would best advance our agenda of political, constitutional and social change,” he added.

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