Ulster: guns handover 'will take place'

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The Independent Online

Fresh cheer was brought to the Irish peace process yesterday by Canadian General John de Chastelain, who produced an upbeat report on the prospects for paramilitary arms decommissioning.

Fresh cheer was brought to the Irish peace process yesterday by Canadian General John de Chastelain, who produced an upbeat report on the prospects for paramilitary arms decommissioning.

Having met representatives of the IRA and the two main illegal loyalist groupings, the general said recent events "provide the basis for an assessment that decommissioning will occur".

His prediction was widely welcomed across the political spectrum, although scepticscomplained that the IRA had yet to provide any commitments on whether, how, where and when decommissioning would occur.

The general, who is head of the International Decommissioning Commission, partly based his hopeful assessment on a meeting with an IRA representative, which he described as "frank and useful".

He said: "We have taken note of the much improved political atmosphere created by the establishment of the new political institutions, the renewed collective commitment of the parties and the appointment of representatives by groups that had not previously done so." This last comment was a reference to the IRA and the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF).

The general held his first meeting yesterday with UFF representatives who included Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair, recently released from prison where he was held on a charge of directing terrorism. One representative, a former prisoner John White, made it clear after the meeting that the UFF would not act in advance of the IRA. He said: "There will be no loyalist guns until the IRA makes the first move. The Ulster Freedom Fighters will not address the issue of decommissioning until such time as the IRA makes their move first."

But the De Chastelain report was welcomed by the Ulster Unionist security spokesman, Ken Maginnis MP, who said: "I am content that the process is moving forward, and I welcome the fact that it's moving forward in a planned way. I look forward very obviously to the culmination of the process."

The Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, welcomed the report, saying that it had put in place "the last element" of the Mitchell review. "Sinn Fein has delivered big time. We will continue to secure the implementation of all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement."

Yesterday also saw the latest in a series of measures in the gradual demilitarisation of Northern Ireland, when it was announced that the RUC's Castlereagh holding centre will shortly be closed.

The RUC said the closure was the result of the improving security situation and of a continuing review of policy. The two other major police holding centres, in Londonderry and Armagh, are also expected to be shut in the near future.

Castlereagh has for decades been the major interrogation centre in which detectives sought to extract confessions from republican and loyalist suspects. It was the subject of a wave of allegations of police brutality in the late 1970s.

The Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, said he had spoken to Tony Blair about the "immense importance" of scaling down security levels.

Meanwhile, police promised protection for members of the Northern Ireland executive after an incident yesterday when eggs were thrown by loyalist protesters at the new Agriculture Minister, Brid Rodgers. Ms Rodgers said she would not be deflected from her duties. The incident was condemned by the Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Mandelson, who said: "This was the work of an anti-democratic element, the same element who say they champion the cause of security but so often are seen to breach it."

Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein visited his first mixed-religion school since becoming Education Minister, saying he had been "overwhelmed by messages of support from all sections of our community".