IRA says no to weapons handover

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The Independent Online
THE IRA yesterday ruled out arms decommissioning for the foreseeable future, thus deepening the sense of deadlock in the Northern Ireland peace process.

Its flat refusal to meet the hopes of the British and Irish governments, and the demands of the Unionist leader, David Trimble, is not viewed as fatal to the peace process. But it does seem to diminish the chances of any early resolution of the decommissioning dispute.

Mr Trimble and some other politicians have recently declared themselves confident that decommissioning will take place, though it has never been clear on what such predictions have been based.

Republican sources havepoured cold water on such reports all along, and briefings given yesterday to journalists are regarded as a definitive statement of the IRA's present attitude.

Republican sources confirmed that an IRA army convention, the organisation's most powerful decision-making body, took place recently. Its meetings are rare.

The sources said that the meeting had not been called specifically to discuss decommissioning but had considered it and firmly ruled it out. Sources added that the convention had reviewed all aspects of the political situation.

There is said to be a great deal of anger in republican circles about Mr Trimble's approach. He is accused of blocking movement in the peace process and slowing progress to a snail's pace.

In his acceptance speech at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo this week, he again insisted that the IRA must decommission before Sinn Fein could be admitted to a new cross-party executive in Northern Ireland.

Republican sources also said that a new IRA leadership had been elected at the convention, explaining that at such meetings the organisation's army council routinely came up for re-election.

They would give no information on whether any important changes had been made to the army council's make-up.

The announcement was a bitter blow to Tony Blair and to the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, who admitted they were out of ideas for breaking the deadlock between the Ulster parties on how to give effect to the Good Friday Agreement.

The leaders held emergency talks on the sidelines of the Vienna EU summit yesterday, but emerged exuding exasperation and despondency, with their hopes of a pre-Christmas breakthrough fading fast. "I can't do anything more," Mr Ahern said, making no attempt to conceal his frustration.

Casting doubt on the willingness of Mr Trimble's Ulster Unionists to engage in constructive negotiation, Mr Ahern said Dublin had done everything it could to accommodate their concerns. Yet, he said, there was no sign of any move on the Unionist side. "It is disappointing so little has been achieved. Even at this difficult time, 10 days have gone by without even phone contact. That is quite ridiculous".

Echoing this frustration, Mr Blair said that it should not be difficult to get the process "over the last few hurdles". London and Dublin would still do all they could but it was time, he said, for the parties to abide by the agreement they signed.

There are growing fears that failure to pin down a deal by early next week - on a power- sharing executive in Northern Ireland and the powers of all-Ireland bodies - could fan violence when hardline Unionists gather at Drumcree next weekend. Irish sources said Dublin is increasingly worried that there may be fundamental resistance within Mr Trimble's party to accepting the full power-sharing ramifications of the Good Friday Agreement. "Both London and Dublin are at the end of their tether," one senior official said.

Such is the alarm in government circles, Mr Blair broke off his summit discussions to telephone Mr Trimble.

The main stumbling block is a dispute on the size of the power-sharing executive, the departments it will include and the composition of the planned cross-border ministerial council. Without agreement on these elements, new British and Irish legislation cannot be put through both parliaments.