'Surrender' of arms anathema to republicans

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Although many uncertainties surround the Irish peace process, observers in Ireland have been practically unanimous on one central point: that the IRA is unlikely to de-commission any of its weaponry in the foreseeable future, writes David McKittrick.

This is because of a complex of political factors which, together with the fact that Ireland has no history of decommissioning, appear to make it next to impossible for republican leaders to attempt such a move.

Most people in political circles regard this as a source of regret, since in any society it is clearly preferable to take as many illegal arms as possible out of circulation.

But from the start almost all nationalist representatives have been much more relaxed than the British government about the prospects of the guns not being handed over. This is because of the widespread view that the crucial point is not the existence of the arms, but the existence of the intention to use them.

Curiously, this view is also held by a number of senior security figures. Unionist politicians, by contrast, support the British government's stance.

One reason for not decommissioning is that doing so would decrease Sinn Fein's negotiating muscle. At the same time, the psychology of the IRA and Sinn Fein is so much against decommissioning that it is unlikely the IRA leadership could hand over weapons, even if it wished to.

Republicans are adamant that the year-old IRA ceasefire was a considered disengagement from the "armed struggle". Any handover of arms would inevitably be seen as a sign of surrender. As senior RUC officers have said on a number of occasions, the IRA ceasefire came about despite opposition from some parts of the movement, particularly in the hardline rural areas of south Armagh and east Tyrone.

Their misgivings have if anything probably increased as, in republican eyes, the British government has responded to the ceasefire at a snail's pace. Any move towards decommissioning might well convince them they had been conned by Gerry Adams and those who reassured them the IRA was disengaging and not surrendering.