Hope survives for a deal with IRA over arms

Timing is the single obstacle to agreement over decommissioning
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The assertion by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, John Reid, that the recent bout of peace process negotiations had come "tantalisingly close" to a breakthrough appears to be more than the mere rhetoric of reassurance.

Positive elements emerged during the talks which give rise to hope that real progress can be made during the newly arranged six-week period for more negotiations.

In the immediate future, however, things could well take a downturn. The most obvious danger is that the IRA might break off talks with General John de Chastelain's decommissioning body and withdraw its recent offer to put its weapons beyond use.

But assuming that all participants in the peace process can be brought back to the table, the British and Irish governments will be attempting to build on some promising elements.

One of the starting points for the last set of negotiations was the IRA's statement of May 2000, which said that, subject to various conditions, "the IRA leadership will initiate a process that will completely and verifiably put IRA arms beyond use".

When the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, David Trimble, announced the terms of his resignation as First Minister in May this year, he linked his action closely to those specific words, reading them into the record of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Earlier this week, General de Chastelain used the same words again, saying of the offer made to him by the IRA: "We believe that this proposal initiates a process that will put IRA arms completely and verifiably beyond use."

He was referring to a specific method of putting arms beyond use that had been put forward by the IRA. The British and Irish governments supported his judgement by rushing through new regulations making it clear that this method, which remains secret, complies with existing decommissioning legislation.

This sequence of events came to an unsuccessful conclusion, however, with a negative reaction from the Ulster Unionists. Mr Trimble initially described it as "a significant step towards decommissioning", but after a series of party meetings he announced that "there is actually nothing for us to consider". He specified, in terms he had not used at the time of his resignation announcement, that he now required a start to actual decommissioning.

This late raising of the stakes helps to explain why the present impasse was reached, but it also shows that the negotiation was a serious one, with real engagement from those involved.

During the negotiations, the IRA made groundbreaking moves on arms, which the governments will hope to build on. The organisation had been pressed on three points: whether, how and when it would put weapons beyond use. The IRA representative indicated to General de Chastelain that it would put its arms beyond use, and suggested an acceptable method for doing so. Of the three points at issue, in other words, the score is two down, one to go.

The remaining issue, that of timing, will be difficult to resolve. London is working hard on this, with Mr Reid confirming that he is to publish a sheaf of documentation on policing and the criminal justice system. This is significant, because the IRA's May 2000 statement placed the arms issue in the context of advances in these areas. It was government movement on policing during the past month that helped to produce the IRA's new position on arms.

Great difficulties remain, though, and setbacks are to be expected within the next six weeks. At the same time, however, the position on decommissioning has moved a considerable distance, and may yet more further.