Hopes rising of IRA move on decommissioning

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Hopes are rising that the IRA will make an important move on decommissioning its weapons and keep the Northern Ireland peace process alive.

There is growing optimism in the British and Irish governments that the impasse over IRA weapons can be broken before the 12 August deadline set by David Trimble's resignation as Northern Ireland's First Minister. Without a breakthrough by then, the British Government will be forced to hold fresh elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly or even reimpose direct rule from Westminster.

The optimism contrasts with the downbeat mood after the five days of talks at Weston Park, Shropshire, ended a week ago without agreement. News emerged yesterday that senior figures who serve on the IRA's army council were drawn into the discussions at Weston Park – a sign that the IRA is serious about making progress.

When Mr Trimble expressed doubts that any breakthrough could be made because those senior figures were absent, Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, reassured him they were staying at the nearby hotel where Sinn Fein's representatives, including Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, were based. It is believed the influential IRA members were consulted regularly even though they did not join the talks.

Sources in London and Dublin confirmed that the discussions involved all sections of the republican movement. "There were very serious negotiations, people were fully engaged, and we believe a lot of progress been made," a Brit-ish government source said.

Officials in London and Dublin are now drafting proposals in response to the Wes-ton Park talks, which they will submit to the Northern Ireland political parties. It is hoped that the plan will be followed by an immediate and positive response from the IRA.

Brian Cowen, the Irish Foreign Minister, said yesterday the package would be unveiled "very shortly" and expressed cautious optimism over a breakthrough in the stalled peace process. He added: "I am confident that, with the necessary political will, it can be done. We have overcome bigger hurdles in getting to this point and now we must finish the job."

However, Unionists fear that one stumbling block remains. Although the IRA may agree to put its weapons verifiably beyond use, it may refuse to declare the move "permanent," as requested by the international body on decommissioning chaired by John de Chastelain. A similar dispute delayed any progress after the IRA declared a ceasefire in 1994, when it refused to make the move "permanent" on the basis that it could not bind its successors into a permanent declaration.