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Killing Clouds Sinn Fein Future

February 19, 1998 GMT

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ The killing of a Catholic man has thrown new doubt on the British and Irish governments’ plans to expel the IRA-allied Sinn Fein party from Northern Ireland peace negotiations.

The two governments had hoped to announce Thursday that Sinn Fein would be suspended from negotiations for several weeks in punishment for two unclaimed killings last week that police blamed on the Irish Republican Army.

But they continued to haggle over the detail of their intended joint statement as police pursued leads on the abduction and slaying of Kevin Conway, 30, from his home in Lurgan, 25 miles southwest of Belfast.

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Detectives said they weren’t sure who was responsible. They pointed to the fact that Conway lived in Kilwilkie, a hard-line Catholic neighborhood where support for the IRA runs high, yet his abductors felt comfortable enough in the area to walk through his front door Tuesday morning and kidnap him, leaving behind his 3-month-old baby.

Police recovered his body Thursday about 7 miles away in a farmhouse near the Protestant village of Aghalee. Conway’s hands were tied behind his back and he had been shot through the back of the head.

Sinn Fein accused a pro-British gang opposed to the talks, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, of killing the man in hopes of heightening communal tensions.

But the Loyalist Volunteers denied this in a coded statement to Belfast media and threw back the allegations, claiming that the IRA killed Conway as part of ``sorting out an internal problem.″

Dolores Kelly, a moderate Catholic politician in the area, said Conway had a reputation as a minor-league crook ``selling cheap cigarettes and alcohol to underage children.″ But she said that didn’t entitle anyone ``to be a self-appointed judge, jury and executioner.″

The negotiations on Northern Ireland’s future resume Monday in Belfast after an unproductive three-day stay in Dublin, the Irish Republic’s capital.

That session began with Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam formally calling for Sinn Fein’s exclusion in accordance with the talks’ principles of adherence to nonviolence.

Representatives of the north’s main pro-British paramilitary group were expelled last month because of those rules, but Sinn Fein leaders refused to go willingly. Instead they sought an injunction in the Dublin High Court to try to block the governments.

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Sinn Fein’s case continued Thursday with lawyer Adrian Hardiman summarizing the party’s contention that Mowlam failed to provide any evidence proving IRA involvement in last week’s killings _ and that the American talks chairman, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, failed to defend Sinn Fein’s rights by accepting her inadequate indictment.

Lawyers for the Irish government, which wasn’t named by Sinn Fein as a defendant despite its joint decision-making role, argued that the case was unconstitutional, since Irish courts shouldn’t ``trespass″ into powers rightly held by the British and Irish governments.

Opinion was divided as to whether Judge Frederick Morris, president of the High Court, would be able to rule Friday.

But Protestant politicians warned the two governments to make their decision on Sinn Fein soon.

``The whole thing has become a bit of a farce,″ said Jeffrey Donaldson, a negotiator for the Ulster Unionists, the north’s major party, which represents about half of its Protestant majority.