Blair holds secret talks with IRA

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TONY BLAIR had a direct face-to-face meeting with three members of the Provisional IRA's Army Council during last month's peace talks, at which the offer to decommission all weapons by May 2000 was made.

The revelation that the offer came direct from the Republican movement's high command, and not through Sinn Fein intermediaries, explains the great enthusiasm with which it was greeted by both the British and Irish governments at the time. It will also increase pressure on Unionist politicians, who rejected it out of hand, in advance of negotiations resuming next month.

Senior diplomatic sources last week confirmed that the IRA men made the offer to Mr Blair with the intention that it should be passed on to the Unionists, as it was politically impossible for them to speak directly to the other side.

Without explaining its source, Mr Blair announced after the secret meeting in Stormont Castle that the offer represented "historic, seismic shifts in the political landscape of Northern Ireland". Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach, said: "Things were given that were never given before."

The news comes at a time when the IRA leadership is struggling to keep its grassroots members behind the peace process when, after three years of ceasefire, the Republican movement is still excluded from government.

On Friday it issued a statement that the Army Council had not sanctioned an attempt, discovered last month, to import up to 200 guns and large amounts of ammunition from America. The day before, Anthony Smyth, 42, and Conor Claxton, 26, both from Northern Ireland, had pleaded not guilty at a brief hearing in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to charges of breaching US arms export laws. Prosecutors said Claxton had admitted membership of the IRA after his arrest the previous week, though his lawyer has since denied this.

Men were also questioned about the plot in the Irish Republic. One of them has strong links with the IRA's quartermaster general. It would be the quartermaster general who would be in charge of any arms importing operation.

Security sources both there and in Britain have so far shied away from laying responsibility at the IRA's door. But informed observers believe that the IRA statement is a tacit acknowledgement that those involved were Provisionals, even if they were acting without authority.

The statement also sought to distance IRA leaders from the grisly execution of Charles "Chucky" Bennett, an alleged police informant, in Belfast 10 days ago. "Let us emphasise that there have been no breaches of the IRA cessation, which remains intact," it said. Security sources agree that the statement's careful wording amoun-ted to an admission that those involved in both events are, or have been, IRA members.

"The shooting of Chucky Bennett was a clear message to the IRA leadership that some of the Provos are getting restless and that they need to hurry up with the peace process if a resumption of war is to be avoided," said one republican source.

The most immediate threat to that process comes from the events being played out in the Florida courtroom. Originally seen as an amateurish attempt to send a few handguns through the post, emerging evidence has increasingly pointed to a large-scale operation, organised by senior hardline Provisionals. In the haul, police found high-calibre ammunition for the Barrett Light Fifty sniper rifle used by IRA border snipers to kill nine policemen and soldiers in the three years before the ceasefire.

If it were established that the IRA was seeking to re-arm itself, rather than making serious offers to decommission, then all the tortuous negotiations that have taken place since last year's Good Friday agreement would come to an abrupt end. On Friday there were reports that three hardline republican terrorist groups have merged to plan a new bombing campaign, both in Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. The new grouping is said to bring together the Real IRA, which carried out last year's Omagh bombing, the Continuity IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), responsible for the shooting of Loyalist Volunteer Force leader Billy Wright in the Maze prison in 1997. If such an alliance has been formed, it would aim to attract the large number of IRA members who have become bitterly disillusioned following the breakdown of peace talks. There is speculation among security sources that the arms operation was an attempt by such maverick provisionals to supply the new group with guns of its own. Yesterday, however, a spokesman for the INLA's political wing denied any involvement in plans for a new terror campaign. The organisation is presently trying to broker a non-aggression pact with Loyalist para-militaries, he claimed. "Now that the political process has been cynically stopped for the next six or seven weeks, there is a vacuum where people don't know what is happening. It would be all too easy for people with guns to step into that vacuum," he said. Omagh anniversary, page 11