All but hardline Unionists welcome IRA offer to put arms 'beyond use'

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The IRA'S offer to put weapons "beyond use" continued to draw a positive response from almost all quarters yesterday apart from hardline Unionists opposed to the Good Friday Agreement.

The offer, which came in a package aimed at restoring the Belfast Assembly and executive by 22 May, was hailed by many as a breakthrough and possibly an historic shift. .

David Trimble's opponents within his Ulster Unionist Party served notice, however, that they will oppose acceptance of the package when it is put to the party's ruling council, possibly on 20 May. Rejection of the plan at that point would be potentially catastrophic for London and Dublin, as no one thinks the IRA is likely to improve on its offer. Defeat would also place the Trimble leadership in question.

The IRA referred in a statement to a process that will "completely and verifiably put IRA arms beyond use". As part of the deal two international representatives, the former African National Congress general secretary Cyril Ramaphosa and the former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, are to inspect some IRA arms dumps within weeks.

There is unconfirmed speculation that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson, may seek to bolster Mr Trimble's position at his council meeting by offering concessions on the policing Bill now in the Commons.

The council has formally instructed Mr Trimble to seek to change government plans to rename the Royal Ulster Constabulary the Police Service of Northern Ireland. He continued to give a guarded welcome to the IRA statement yesterday, describing it as containing positive elements.

The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, offered Mr Trimble any help he could give.

The Sinn Fein MP Martin McGuinness described the IRA statement as a "huge and mighty step forward".

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