Hardliners split from IRA over peace deal

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The Independent Online

Several important members of the IRA and Sinn Fein have quit the organisations to protest the devolution deal hammered out by Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble. Reliable sources said the resignations are a symptom of significant grassroots unease about the deal because it might lead to the de-commissioning of IRA weapons.

Several important members of the IRA and Sinn Fein have quit the organisations to protest the devolution deal hammered out by Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble. Reliable sources said the resignations are a symptom of significant grassroots unease about the deal because it might lead to the de-commissioning of IRA weapons.

Those involved, though as yet unnamed, are described as senior IRA and Sinn Fein personnel. The party fears that others may resign in the near future. "Sinn Fein has already lost some people and will lose more," one source said. "These are people of some substance, but they have agreed to walk away and do nothing. They will not set up rival organisations."

The defections come at the end of a week in which both sides have attempted to sell the deal through the media. Mitchel McLaughlin, Sinn Fein's chairman, and Martin McGovern, the party's London representative, came to the Canary Wharf offices of the Independent on Sunday to brief the editorial board on why the deal could and must work.

However, the defecting dissidents may yet decide to join other, more militant groups. This was the pattern during the last significant wave of defections from the IRA late in 1997.

Those who left then, including the IRA's quarter-master general, indicated at the time that they would not establish competing organisations. But it emerged within months that they had set up a new group, "Real IRA," and were intent on carrying on a campaign of violence while the mainstream IRA maintained its ceasefire. It was this group which bombed Omagh, County Tyrone, in August 1998, killing 29 people.

Given this history, the security forces will be watching carefully to gauge whether the defectors constitute a new threat.

This sign of republican unrest mirrors the situation in the Ulster Unionist Party where, in a far more public way, opposition is being voiced to Mr Trimble's attempts to win support for the peace plan brokered by former US senator George Mitchell.

It emerged yesterday that, after months of relative stagnation, a speedy timetable has been drawn up to try to maintain the recent momentum.

Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, announced that the Belfast Assembly would be summoned on 29 November for the historic appointment of a new power-sharing executive to include both the UUP and Sinn Fein. The Devolution Order will be laid before Parliament on 30 November with devolution to take place on 2 December.

"With my own eyes I have seen trust grow and flourish over the last weeks," Mr Mandelson said. "It will take patience and understanding, but those are the precise qualities that have brought us where we are today."

But devolution will only be possible if Mr Trimble wins the endorsement of his party for the plan at a specially convened meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council on Saturday. Until then, he and his opponents will wage what he described as a "short but momentous campaign".

His efforts were not helped when Pat Doherty, Sinn Fein's vice president, was quoted in the Boston Herald saying the IRA would not disarm.

Sinn Fein moved swiftly to counter the damage caused by the report. Mr Doherty put out a statement expressing "dismay and deep concern" at the reporting of his remarks and insisted he had not moved from the Sinn Fein position that "decommissioning is an essential part of the peace process".

One source said that the IRA and Sinn Fein are already looking at ways to decommission, and are even considering the possibility, still unlikely, of pouring concrete over arms in front of General John de Chastelain, the Canadian officer overseeing the decommissioning process.

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