Assembly still set to close despite IRA statement

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The Independent Online

The Belfast Assembly looks destined for another period of suspension this weekend following Unionist dismissal of the latest IRA statement relating to arms decommissioning.

Although the IRA pronouncement was markedly more forthcoming and more conciliatory than usual, it is clear that it has come nowhere near convincing either Unionist politicians or the Protestant grassroots of republican commitment to decommissioning.

The IRA condemnation of the attacks on America was coupled with an announcement of intensified talks on decommissioning, as well as an assurance that three Irishmen arrested in Colombia last month were not there "to train or to engage in any military cooperation with any group".

It did not, however, go on to explain the exact nature and purpose of IRA contacts with Farc guerrillas in Colombia.

The IRA statement was clearly intended to fend off some of the international backlash against armed terrorist organisations in the wake of the American attacks. The big question is what further effects that backlash will have in propelling the republicans towards decommissioning.

In the meantime, Unionists have made it clear they are demanding much more movement from republicans. Ulster Unionist party leader David Trimble met Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams yesterday for private talks, saying afterwards that republicans had "a political mountain to climb" to convince Unionists they were committed to peace.

He added: "If the political process is to continue as it is, then republicans must act now to create the necessary credibility."

The immediate question for the government is how to act this weekend, when the six-week period of grace given last month to the Belfast Assembly runs out. Hopes that a breakthrough could be achieved during this time have proved unfounded, and the choice for the Government is to bring about another six-week extension or opt for an indefinite suspension.

The Ulster Unionists have made it clear that they favour indefinite suspension to allow a review of the entire Good Friday Agreement. There are even threats that in the event of another one-day suspension, the party could pull its ministers out of the administration, thus triggering a deeper crisis.

DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson declared: "This is the IRA once again seeing if they can bluff Tony Blair and others into letting them off the hook. The world is about to turn on international terrorism. The IRA is part of that international terrorist network."

The reception to the IRA statement from other nationalists was cool. Sean Farren, of the SDLP, said it was intended to convey a sense of movement when the reality was that progress on arms had been "almost imperceptible".

The Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, said: "It's not enough in terms of bringing us back to where we were last month. While the statement is progress we have to keep going."

* A court yesterday banned six men from taking part in loyalist protests at a Catholic girls school at Ardoyne in north Belfast when they appeared on public order charges related to the events.

Belfast Magistrates Court ordered the men to stay away from the ongoing protests that are happening at the Holy Cross School.

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