Soft Mitchell line on IRA guns

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The Independent Online

Ireland Correspondent

The Mitchell report on illegal arms in Northern Ireland has concluded that paramilitary groups will not decommission weapons in advance of all- party negotiations, as demanded by the British government.

It has instead laid out six principles of non-violence and democracy and recommends that, in the absence of prior de-commissioning, all parties involved in talks should make a commitment to the principles.

They include absolute commitments to peaceful means and eventual total disarmament, which should be verifiable by independent means. Another is a declaration that if those involved in talks disagreed with their eventual outcome they would oppose this outcome by exclusively peaceful methods.

It mentions the possibility of paramilitary groups decommissioning weapons in the course of all-party talks rather than in advance of them.

The report is the work of a three-man international commission, set up jointly by the British and Irish governments and headed by former US Senator George Mitchell, which put it together in an intensive two-month period of meetings in Belfast, Dublin and London. It will be formally published this morning and there will be government statements in London and Dublin later in the day.

Its import is that the Government's stipulation, known as "Washington 3", that the IRA and other groups should de-commission some weapons in advance of all-party talks, is not realisable.

The Government has made it clear that it is under no obligation to accept any of the report's findings and recommendations. The question now is whether the Government accepts Washington 3 as unrealistic, and accepts that subscribing to the principles of non-violence and democracy would be enough to allow Sinn Fein entry into talks.

Sinn Fein will be relieved that Mr Mitchell and his colleagues have not joined London in insisting on prior decommissioning, since the IRA has ruled out any such move.

The report's suggestion of confidence-building measures is intended to reassure other participants at talks, and also to bind the republicans more tightly than ever before into the political processes.

The Government may seize on one of the possible confidence-building measures referred to in the report, that of "an elective process" as part of negotiations. This is a reference to the idea that a new assembly could have a part to play in negotiations. The report goes on to consider ways of disposing of weapons, mentioning that if weapons were to be destroyed by paramilitary groups themselves an independent body would be needed to verify this.

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