IRA's 'go-between' enters arms talks

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THE IRA has taken the potentially historic step of making contact with the International Decommissioning Commission, a development which supporters of the peace process hope will lead on to some concrete disarmament move in the new year.

The announcement was made by the IRA which confirmed that its appointed representative had been in touch with the body headed by the Canadian General John de Chastelain.

The move was welcomed by the Ulster Unionist Party, whose security spokesman, Ken Maginnis, said: "Every hopeful member of society will take a degree of comfort and reassurance from the fact that the process is, so far, moving as it was intended. Obviously the actual act of decommissioning is what we await but the present advancing of the process is to be welcomed."

The IRA said it had kept its commitment, made in mid-November, to enter discussions with the general. It added that it anticipated further discussions would take place.

The move was an agreed part of the deal struck some weeks ago between the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, and Gerry Adams, of Sinn Fein.

The deal also encompassed last week's formation of a new power-sharing executive with Mr Trimble at its head and two Sinn Fein members among its ministers.

Mr Trimble helped get the deal approved by his party's ruling council by promising to recall it in February, the implication being that the assembly and executive would be shut down if republicans had not delivered on decommissioning.

The great unanswered question of the peace process is now whether republicans will make a move in the new year which stands a chance of winning the approval of Mr Trimble's council.

On paper, all the IRA has committed itself to do is to appoint an interlocutor to discuss decommissioning.

Cynics say it will go little further, and will dare Mr Trimble and the two governments to pull the plug on the executive. The more optimistic, among whom are numbered Mr Trimble and both governments, say they expect decommissioning to take place.

John Major, who as Prime Minister placed heavy emphasis on decommissioning, said: "There are many different groups within the IRA, which is why the danger exists that there will be a split, on one or other side of the paramilitary groups, and somebody will split off and return to violence. That is always a danger.

"But on balance I think we will see some paramilitary decommissioning. I think it is most likely to be the self-destruction of weapons, rather than handing them over."