Police are investigating a possible leak from ordnance stores in England following a major arms haul in the quiet County Down town of Holywood yesterday.
They believe the arms were destined for a loyalist paramilitary group, the illegal Ulster Volunteer Force, but a senior security source said he believed the arms were to be stockpiled rather than prepared for use.
The incident was not therefore seen as representing any immediate threat to the ceasefire that the UVF and other loyalist groups declared in October of last year.
Almost 40 weapons of various shapes and sizes were discovered in a house in Holywood, which is close to Belfast and which contains a large Army base. They ranged from modern rifles to antique curiosities, some of which appeared to date back to the last century. Outhouses at the property were found to contain metal-working equipment such as vices and a lathe.
Police and troops moved in on Thursday evening in a major security operation. Three arrests were made, one of whom was an Englishman living in Northern Ireland, and another, his brother, who is believed to have arrived recently from England.
Meanwhile police in Co Durham searched a house at Ouston, Chester-le- Street, in response to a Royal Ulster Constabulary request. A spokesman said no arms had been found, adding that anything of interest would be referred to the RUC.
The Holywood discovery, though not viewed as menacing the peace process, comes as an embarrassment for the Government at a time when it is still resisting opening face-to-face ministerial talks with Sinn Fein.
The Northern Ireland minister Michael Ancram has already held several meetings with the Progressive Unionist Party, the UVF's political voice, and other loyalists. These were arranged because the Government said the PUP had said it was serious about the issue of de-commissioning arms.
The Holywood haul appears to indicate that the UVF is replenishing its armoury rather than thinking of reducing it. This undermines the Government's policy of insisting that verbal promises from the paramilitary groups are of great value.
The complaint had already been made that the Government was talking to the UVF, via the PUP, even though UVF prisoners had staged major disturbances at the Maze prison. A number of prison officers were injured in rioting there, and subsequently the homes of some officers came under attack.
The Holywood incident, which clearly followed intensive police surveillance, will be taken as suggesting that the Government was prepared, for political reasons, to talk to the UVF even though the intelligence services were aware of attempts to procure more arms.
The guns seized included modern assault rifles, sub-machine guns and machine-pistols, some of which were home-made, and about a dozen revolvers of various vintages.
Bertie Ahern, leader of the Fianna Fail opposition party, said in Dublin that British ministers should end "unnecessary delays" in meeting Sinn Fein. He accused the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, of "fighting some of the old battles of the past."Reuse content