British Direct Ruler Peter Hain has heaped praise on Sinn Féin’s leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, describing them as “visionary” for urging the Provisional IRA to end its armed struggle.
The remarks, made during his first trip to the U.S since taking up the post, surprised both Sinn Féin supporters and unionist political leaders.
Mr Hain spoke of the “courageous” role that Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness had played in the peace process over the past 10 years when he met Irish-American Congressmen and women on Capitol Hill.
In New York, Mr Hain struck a similar tone. In an interview with the Irish Voice newspaper, he said that Mr Adams had “shown vision and determination” and “a lot of political guts” for his “momentous statement”.
Mr Hain also compared the situation in Ireland to South Africa, his birthplace, under apartheid.
Peter Robinson, the deputy leader of the DUP, was scathing about Mr Hain’s comments. “They bring into sharp focus the background of the Secretary of State and his predisposition to the republican movement,” he said. “He might consider he knows a lot about South Africa but he’s demonstrating very vividly how little he knows about Northern Ireland.”
A British official said: “The Secretary of State’s meetings in Washington were private.
“But he has in the past referred to the journey that Sinn Féin has taken the republican movement over the last 10 years to engage in the democratic process and which he has rightly described as courageous.”
She said that the comparison to South Africa referred to the hope that two polarised parties could reach a deal.
Meanwhile, nationalists have been making efforts to breathe life into plans for cross-Border co-operation promised in the shelved 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Three Dublin government Ministers met a delegation form the nationalist SDLP in Dublin yesterday to discuss the possibility of an all-Ireland free travel pass for pensioners and a proposal to eliminate “roaming” charges for mobile phone-users who travel between North and South.
It was resolved to pursue the prospect of reopening the Ulster Canal, which if operational would allow boat trips from Limerick to Lough Neagh.
Dublin’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern told reporters that, in the absence of the North’s political institutions including the North/South ministerial bodies, it was important to continue to press forward with cross-Border initiatives.
The “stop-start” operation of the Belfast Agreement had made it difficult to have continuity in North/South developments, and “the sooner we get back to real politics the better”.
Minister Dermot Ahern said his government had still not decided whether to take the British government to court over the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.
The 1974 bombings killed 34 civilians and were widely believed to have involved state collusion. The British government has consistently failed to support efforts to uncover the truth about the affair.
“We’ve been here before. We’re two democratic governments,” Mr Ahern said.
“We’ve already taken the British government to court over Sellafield and we’re still prosecuting that case very vigorously.
“But it doesn’t reduce our ability to work with each other. We still get on with the work because we’re professional politicians.
“I can’t see any of these issues diverting us from the co-operation we can have on North-South and east-west issues,” Mr Ahern said.