IRA to reveal graves of the `disappeared'

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THE IRA LAST night attempted to win a tactical advantage in the crucial Belfast political talks by announcing that it had identified the graves of nine people killed and buried secretly by the organisation in the Seventies.

The news came as a huge relief to the families of missing people, known as "the disappeared", who have said they have not been able to grieve properly because of the absence of the bodies of their relatives. The nine graves said to have been identified do not include that of Captain Robert Nairac, who was killed in 1977.

In what was clearly a carefully co-ordinated response to the announcement, the British and Irish governments signalled that they would be willing to change the law so any evidence found at the grave sites would not be used in prosecutions.

The next step may be for the IRA to say it will reveal the bodies' locations in exchange for legal assurances that new evidence would not be used in criminal proceedings.

Given that the question of the disappeared has been an issue for almost five years, the timing of the announcement and the two governments' responses were obviously significant. The hope is that it will lend a new, positive tone to the political talks.

Tony Blair and the Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, arrived in Belfast yesterday to join local politicians who were already immersed in meetings. These included two encounters between the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein, who are regarded as the two key elements in finding a way through the decommissioning impasse. Today is expected to bring an even more intensive round of talks.

Many of yesterday's meetings were said to have had a positive tone, although in public the protagonists were unprepared to budge from their positions.

Sources close to the negotiations say that if accommodation is reached, it will probably happen on the basis of an agreed package, central to which is the concept of mutual guarantees being swapped between the unionists and republicans, with a clear choreography of steps to be undertaken.

These could be witnessed and underwritten by the British and Irish governments, the United States and by David Trimble's deputy as first minister designate, Seamus Mallon of the Social Democratic and Labour Party. The IRA would be expected to provide a statement pledging commitment to the peace process and conveying a sense that it regards armed conflict as a thing of the past.

Another element in the equation may be a document, which is due to be published by the government, on the "normalisation" of security force activity. Some sources suggest that this may go further than simply expressing the hope that various army bases in the province would be closed if the major ceasefires hold.

The announcement on the disappeared is seen as another factor in broadening the parameters of the discussions, although Mr Trimble said last night it would not impact on the decommissioning issue. Absolutely none of this is settled, and all of it is dependent on a willingness by both unionists and republicans to move from their stated positions.

Missing Victims of the Troubles

THE ISSUE of "the disappeared" has become one of the most poignant humanitarian issues in Northern Ireland in recent years as relatives of missing persons have asked for the right to decent burials.

Family members have made heart-rending appeals, especially to the IRA, to be told the location of graves.

Their campaign came to the surface in 1995, after the IRA truce of the previous year: it has thus taken the republicans almost five years to respond.

The first case to come to public attention was that of Jean McConville, abducted from the lower Falls area of Belfast in 1972. The case is regarded as particularly striking since her death had such far-reaching effects.

A widow and mother of 10 children, she was taken from her Divis Flats home by a group of republican women and never seen again. Many of the children were taken into care as her family broke up.

Mrs McConville's grave was one of the nine said last night to have been identified.

David McKittrick