Northern Ireland: Declaration will force IRA's hand

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THE DECLARATION represents an apparently simple yet highly subtle attempt to square the circle between the republican and Unionist stances on arms decommissioning. It clearly offers a way out of the weapons quagmire that has slowed progress for so long.

Yet its carefully clipped phrases also contain a lot of pain, in particular for the republican movement, which is in effect being required to agree to seeing "some arms put beyond use".

The basic idea is to lay out a set of carefully choreographed steps designed to achieve the Unionist demand for guns up front with the republican refusal to be bullied by David Trimble into acceding to preconditions set by him. The document thus aims at both bringing about arms decommissioning and securing Sinn Fein's entry into the new executive.

Step one is for the parties to nominate their members for the executive, in which Sinn Fein's electoral support entitles them to two of the 10 seats. Next is the "collective act of reconciliation", which plainly means decommissioning, although that word is carefully avoided.

For the benefit of republicans, who insist they will do nothing that smacks of surrender, a new tone would be set through the holding of ceremonies of remembrance. An act of decommissioning could therefore take on the character not of a gesture of surrender or implicit apology, but rather one of memorial for the dead, including dead IRA members.

At this point Britain would devolve significant powers to the new political set-up, with the establishment of a web of new institutions linking all parts of these islands. The Government would also undertake a significant rundown in security, such as closing some army bases.

Once the Canadian General John de Chastelain and his International Commission on Decommissioning verifies that some arms had been put beyond use, the way will be open for the final political piece of the jigsaw: the assembly confirming the nominations of the new executive, including the two Sinn Fein members.

The document has not been formally endorsed by the major parties, and in particular has yet to be accepted by Sinn Fein. Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern will be back in Belfast on 13 April for more negotiations, which they describe as a final round of meetings. Those can be expected to be just as intense and as difficult as those of this week.