IRA may take more flexible view on arms

NEITHER SECURITY nor republican sources would yesterday confirm a newspaper report that a high-level IRA meeting was held at the weekend to consider greater flexibility on the issue of arms decommissioning.

The lack of confirmation came as little surprise, since republican sources are always at their most secretive on questions of IRA meetings. But the report is being taken seriously since it was the work of Ed Moloney, one of Belfast's most respected journalists.

Observers from all parts of the political spectrum will be watching for any sign that the reported meeting might produce an easing of the existing republican position, which is to say flatly that decommissioning is out of the question for the foreseeable future.

The issue, which has been a feature of the Irish peace process for at least five years, has recently held up the formation of an executive to run the new Belfast assembly.

While Sinn Fein has demanded representation, the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, has refused to countenance having republicans on the executive without some movement on decommissioning.

Although work is continuing on various parts of the Good Friday agreement, some key provisions have been stalled by the impasse. Any relaxation of the republican stance will be hailed as the key to ending the deadlock, but a reaffirmation of the decommissioning position would cause more delays.

The weekend meeting was described as an IRA "army convention", which has far-reaching powers.

Its official purpose was said to be to review the IRA cease-fire which came into effect in July 1997.

Tony Blair is to visit Dublin this week, and it emerged at the weekend he might go to Belfast tomorrow.

If so, he can be expected to meet senior political figures for talks which will centre on the decommissioning issue.

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