Moves on policing at the heart of historic decision

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IRA decommissioning can be traced back to the grinding round of talks at Weston Park in Shropshire in July, when the British and Irish governments spent hours closeted with republicans and Unionists.

IRA decommissioning can be traced back to the grinding round of talks at Weston Park in Shropshire in July, when the British and Irish governments spent hours closeted with republicans and Unionists.

The talks led to a substantial statement from the two governments, which, Dublin made a point of insisting yesterday, remains the template for progress. It placed IRA arms decommissioning firmly in the context of movement on the issues of policing, demilitarisation and the stability of the Good Friday Agreement.

At the time, this was enough to produce limited movement from the IRA on the arms issue; it agreed a potential method of decommissioning with the Canadian General John de Chastelain. But when that drew a negative response from the Ulster Unionists, the IRA declared its offer was off the table. At that point, the Wes-ton Park exercise appeared to have been a failure but now it seems the meeting actually did succeed in laying the groundwork for the IRA finally to make a move on weaponry.

The Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, famously said on his arrival at Weston Park that weaponry was the only issue on the agenda. So it came as a surprise to many when the subsequent Anglo-Irish statement concentrated on other issues. The inter-governmental statement was clearly designed to induce decommissioning rather than impress Unionists. It referred only glancingly to decommissioning itself, taking just two sentences to reaffirm that it was an indispensable part of the Good Friday Agreement.

Policing constituted much of the meat of the statement, which was followed by a lengthy implementation plan dealing with police reform. Many of the policing provisions were altered in response to republican criticisms. The statement also dwelt on the demilitarisation issue, holding out the prospect of "a progressive rolling programme" of reducing troop levels and vacating some of the many security installations across Northern Ireland.

It further asked all parties to play their full part in the Good Friday Agreement and to enable others to do so. This was seen as implicit criticism of Mr Trimble's actions in threatening to resign as First Minister, and of preventing Sinn Fein ministers from attending cross-border meetings.

The language used in all these sections was interpreted as being designed to encourage IRA decommissioning. The statement was, in fact, described as containing a deliberate imbalance.

In the past few weeks, there appears to have been a spirited effort on the part of Sinn Fein to negotiate more concessions on these fronts. But there are no indications that the republicans have made any substantial gains.

Recently, it appeared as though the Weston Park document had been overtaken by events, in particular Mr Trimble's resignation as First Minister and last week's resignations of his party's three remaining ministers.

But it now appears that the Weston Park formula is still very much in play, and that it represents the last extraction of concessions by republicans in advance of an IRA decommissioning act. The package also led to Dublin and London committing themselves to a review of the Parades Commission, which decides on the routes of contentious marches.

Also agreed was the appointment of a judge to investigate allegations of state collusion on either side of the Irish border in the controversial killings of the solicitors Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson, the LVF leader Billy Wright in the Maze, Lord Justice and Lady Gibson, RUC Chief Superintendent Harry Breen, Superintendent Bob Buchanan, and the Portadown Catholic Robert Hamill. Agreement was reached on an amnesty for paramilitaries at large not covered by the Good Friday Agreement's early prisoner-release scheme. The formation of an implementation group to oversee the handling of the Agreement and the operation by all parties in good faith of all the political institutions were also accepted.