Government 'will give in over IRA arms'

One year on: David McKittrick starts a series of articles on Northern Ireland since the ceasefire. Page 6 From the Shankill to the Falls: John Lyttle goes back to Belfast. Section Two
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The Independent Online

Ireland Correspondent

Sinn Fein believes the British government will eventually be pressurised into dropping its insistence that the decommissioning of IRA weapons must begin before all-party talks are called, according to reliable republican sources.

Despite the fact that Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, reiterated the official position on decommissioning in a speech in Belfast on Friday, Sinn Fein still believes the British government will move.

A senior republican source said: "They can be shifted. They can be turned 360 degrees. They've done it in the past." Sinn Fein leaders are to seek American support for their position during a series of visits to the US. Martin McGuinness is to spend a week there early next month, while Gerry Adams flies out around 11 September.

But republican sources admit the impact of republican visits to the US has been subject to the law of diminishing returns and that Mr Adams's trips no longer attract world attention.

The impasse over decommissioning has assumed central importance in the peace process as the first anniversary of the ceasefire on 1 September draws closer. Sinn Fein is pressing for round-table talks while the Government and Unionist politicians resist such moves in advance of decommissioning.

In his speech on Friday, Sir Patrick gave no ground to republicans, and government sources are emphatic there will be no movement. They concede the Government has shifted in the past on issues such as initially refusing to clarify the Downing Street declaration and originally insisting the IRA should declare its ceasefire to be permanent, but this time they say a line has been drawn. Although no way through this logjam is immediately apparent, much interest will centre on the meeting which Mr Adams is expected to hold with Sir Patrick in early September, and on the summit which the Prime Minister, John Major, and the Taoiseach, John Bruton, are to hold next month.

Sir Patrick said on Friday that he hoped the summit would take place on 6 September, but there is speculation that it could be postponed. This has been widely interpreted as a signal that the Irish government does not consider London is doing enough to inject new momentum into the peace process.

The uneasy state of community relations in Northern Ireland was demonstrated by clashes in the Co Tyrone border town of Castlederg early yesterday. Twelve RUC officers and up to 20 civilians were hurt in rioting involving rival crowds after a loyalist march. Police fired plastic bullets during the incident.

Addressing 5,000 people at a rally in Dublin yesterday, Gerry Adams described Sir Patrick's speech as a totally inadequate response to the peace process. He warned: "If the British Government has its way it will let slip through its fingers a genuine opportunity for a fair and lasting peace. We need to demand and ensure that London reacts as urgently to acts of peace as it did to acts of war."

In a contribution to the arms debate, the former Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, repeated yesterday that the decommissioning should be made a precondition for a final negotiated settlement rather than a precondition for talks. He declared: "I think that would take away a lot of the genuine deep-rooted fears that exist in both communities where they believe it is too early to take away their defences in case of a Doomsday situation again."