IRA `may hand over weapons in March'

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THE IRA could be preparing to start handing over weapons and explosives next month, Unionists said last night.

Angered by the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams's prediction that all sides could be moving towards Irish unity within the next 15 years, Unionists believe the Provisionals are considering some sort of decommissioning gesture.

Unionist sources said Mr Adams's unification claim could be seen as a deliberate sign to unnerve Unionists and calm heightening tensions among dissident republicans opposed to the peace process. "It's probably one of series of coded signals Sinn Fein are sending in advance of the transfer of powers," said one source. "I suspect Sinn Fein could be preparing the ground for a start to decommissioning some time in March."

Mr Adams said the IRA would not hand over by 10 March, the target date for devolution, and he could not predict what would happen by May 2000, the Agreement deadline for the completion of decommissioning.

A spokesman for the First Minister, David Trimble, said republicans could not be allowed to hold the peace process to ransom.

The Ulster Unionists are refusing to form an executive with Sinn Fein unless the IRA decommissions its weapons. However, Sinn Fein insists the disarmament process was not a precondition for being allowed into government.

Next week sees a crucial Assembly vote on new government structures, which some see as opening the door to Sinn Fein in government without IRA decommissioning.

"The Agreement has not changed," said Mr Trimble's spokesman. The IRA must decommission for Sinn Fein to take their seats in the executive.

"Sinn Fein/IRA cannot be allowed to hold the process to ransom because of their intransigence on this issue."

Mr Adams said Northern Ireland would be on the road to a united Ireland in 15 years' time. He admitted he did not know what would have happened on disarmament by the May 2000 deadline for it to be completed.