London (CNSNews.com) - Leaders of the Irish Republican Army's political wing have been given plush offices in the British Parliament, despite the fact that they refuse to vote, take part in debate or even sit in the parliamentary chamber.
Four Sinn Fein members of parliament moved into their new offices Monday after a motion allowed them access to government buildings last month. The four - Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, chief negotiator Martin McGuinness, vice president Pat Doherty and Michelle Gildernew - refuse to swear an oath to the British monarchy and thus are barred from participating in most parliamentary activities.
Space is tight in the House of Commons, and dozens of Members of Parliament (M.P.) and their staffs are forced to use offices in nearby buildings. But in an apparent concession to the Irish republican movement, the Sinn Fein representatives were installed in rooms close to the heart of parliament.
The party, which advocates the reunion of British-controlled Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, gained two seats in the last British general election. One Sinn Fein representative sits in the Irish Republic parliament, and the party is the fourth-largest group in Northern Ireland's regional assembly.
In addition to use of offices, each Sinn Fein M.P. will receive a standard allowance of about $150,000 for expenses.
Adams, McGuinness and other Sinn Fein leaders have been accused of sitting on the IRA's secret governing council, but they have always denied the allegations. Adams told reporters Monday that the party would continue its policy of considering the British government to be a foreign power.
"There will never, ever be Sinn Fein M.P.s sitting in the British Houses of Parliament," he said.
A group representing victims of IRA terrorism lashed out Tuesday at the decision to allow Sinn Fein to move into the prime office space. William Frazer, a spokesman for Families Acting for Innocent Relatives (FAIR), said allowing the party to set up shop in parliament was "an outrage."
"These people are terrorists," Frazer said by phone. "Imagine the United States making Osama bin Laden a senator in hopes that he wouldn't attack again. It just doesn't make sense."
Frazer blamed Prime Minister Tony Blair and even pro-British unionist politicians for conceding too much political power to Sinn Fein.
"The peace process has gone from agreement to appeasement," he said. "The people of Northern Ireland are fed up with the political parties."
Frazer said FAIR plans to demonstrate in London in the near future.
Blair 'Bent the Rules'
Unionists also heaped criticism on Blair for allowing Sinn Fein into the center of the British seat of power.
The leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, David Trimble, said Tuesday that Blair is in danger of undermining the province's fragile peace process.
Trimble said Blair "bent the rules" to allow Sinn Fein office space. The unionist leader said he was not opposed to elected representatives taking up their offices, but said the party should be forced to give commitments in exchange for the use of Commons space. He also expressed doubts about Sinn Fein's commitment to the peace process.
"The actual way in which they behave casts doubt on their motives," Trimble said.
The Conservative Party also expressed anger at the move. Conservative Northern Ireland spokesman Quentin Davies called the allocation of office space "quite wrong."
"I feel very sorry, particularly for the victims of the IRA, the people who have been tortured, been maimed, the families of the people who have been murdered," Davies said. "It is going to be made far, far worse by seeing these people treated in this fashion."
Government rebuts criticism
Through his official spokesman, Blair rebutted the criticism, saying that he believed the peace process would benefit from allowing a major republican group to interact with members of parliament.
"It is worth continuing to take risks to try and move from conflict to peace," Blair's official spokesman said.
"The prime minister understands ... that many victims do feel very strongly about what has happened," the spokesman said, but added that the process has saved lives and is "worthwhile."
E-mail a news tip to Mike Wendling.
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