Agreement reached on IRA arms

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Britain and Ireland last night took the significant step of signing an international agreement on arms decommissioning in readiness for next month's crucial political talks.

The participation of Unionist parties in talks remains in doubt, largely because the decommissioning arrangements are regarded by Unionists as too loose and failing to guarantee actual arms handovers during the negotiations.

Nonetheless, London and Dublin yesterday pressed ahead with the signing of a formal agreement establishing an arms commission. This body, which is expected to be under the chairmanship of Canadian general John de Chastelain, is to consider the arms issue in parallel with the political talks.

The next step in the intricate process leading to the opening of talks is to come later this week when the Northern Ireland Secretary, Dr Mo Mowlam, is expected to confirm Sinn Fein's eligibility to attend.

Only a sudden outbreak of IRA violence could prevent this coming about, and the fact is that the organisation has stopped all its violence, according to security sources, "like turning off a tap". The security forces have concluded that the IRA has simply desisted from surveillance and studying of potential targets.

The IRA's so-called punishment beatings, in which youths and others in republican areas were often very brutally assaulted, have also come to a sudden halt. This is regarded as an advance of the IRA's first 1994- 96 cessation, during which such attacks continued.

There are no guarantees that this abnormally pacific state of affairs will continue, but for the moment at least the IRA is clearly at pains to be on its best behaviour while the Government assesses the state of its ceasefire. Its six-week "quarantine" period ends on Sunday.

At the moment the major point of paramilitary uncertainty lies not within republicanism but in the loyalist underworld, where there are rumblings of uncertainty centring on the breakaway Loyalist Volunteer Force.

Against this background the two governments last night formally put in place an international commission to deal with the arms issue. The Unionist objection is that although both governments are committed to pressing the IRA and loyalists on arms handovers there are no timetables and no guarantees.

David Trimble's Ulster Unionist party has as yet taken no final decision on attendance at the talks, and is presently carrying out a "community consultation exercise" involving meetings with churches, business organisations and others.

The general feeling in the party is that it should not walk away from the talks, which could be crucial to the future of Northern Ireland, but opinion is more divided on whether Unionist representatives should sit down face-to-face with Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein yesterday attempted to pressurise the Government into insisting on face-to-face arrangements rather than any idea of negotiating at one remove. Mitchel McLaughlin of Sinn Fein declared: "My answer to proximity talks is a flat no. This will require face-to-face negotiations. How can there be confidence-building measures by proxy? There have to be talks across the table and let David Trimble, if he has the confidence in his argument, present his case."

Dr Mowlam yesterday acknowledged that the Unionist position was uncertain. She said: "I'm not completely confident that we will have everybody around the table. That's still up for grabs. The real problem would be if the Ulster Unionists did not have their feet under the table and Unionism was not heard. I am hopeful they will be there but I don't know any more than that."