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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Unionists Struggle To Accept IRA Role

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Pro-British leaders in Northern Ireland are questioning whether they have anything to gain from the entry of IRA allies in talks on the province's future.

"Some mornings I wake up and think to myself we'd be nuts to go into those talks," says Chris McGimpsey, a Belfast councilman from the Ulster Unionist Party. "The next morning I get up and think we should be in there ... to try and stop the concessions."

Protestants have been expressing similar concerns since Britain announced last week that the IRA-allied Sinn Fein party would join peace talks. The invitation came after the Irish Republican Army announced a cease-fire.

The talks that begin Sept. 15 with Sinn Fein would be the first such negotiations since the IRA launched its violent campaign to end British rule of the province in 1970.

The last IRA cease-fire collapsed in February 1996 after 17 months because the British government refused to push Protestants into talks with the IRA allies. This time, new British Prime Minister Tony Blair has seized on the renewed IRA truce to attempt the maneuver.

But the main concern of both pro-British leaders and many Protestants in general hasn't changed: They fear Sinn Fein will force concessions that will put the province on the path toward unification with the Catholic-dominated Irish Republic.

"That's the question we're facing: Is it worse to stay out or go in? I don't know," McGimpsey said in an interview.

More than 50 interviews this month with Protestants -- including politicians from all six pro-British parties and ordinary wavering citizens -- indicate that many think the talks are inevitable. But the leaders are divided on how the talks should be handled and are skeptical that they will benefit from their outcome.

Blair says unionists shouldn't fear talking to Sinn Fein because the party must formally renounce violence when it begins negotiations, according to terms written by the talks chairman, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell. Then the IRA will be pressed to start voluntarily disarming during talks as Mitchell recommende