IRA challenged for 'holding on to weapons'

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The Independent Online

The IRA has been challenged over allegations that it held on to some weapons after claiming all its guns and explosives were dumped, it was revealed today.

General John de Chastelain, head of the international decommissioning body, carried out an investigation when accusations against the Provisionals were made to him by security sources in Northern Ireland last week.

Republicans questioned IRA commanders as part of their own inquiries and later insisted no guns had been retained and hidden in secret hide-outs.

At the same time, police in the Irish Republic also said it had no intelligence to back up the claims, according to Gen de Chastelain.

Details were released today with a new report by the International Monitoring Commission (IMC), the body set up to assess the state of the IRA ceasefire, which alleged that some Provisionals were still involved in criminality and assaults, as well as intelligence-gathering predominantly directed towards supporting political strategy.

But it also said the IRA had made progress since last July - when it declared an end to its terrorist campaign - to transform itself from a paramilitary organisation into a peaceful one.

London, Dublin and Washington will see this report as confirmation that the Provisionals, once a feared and ruthless terrorist organisation, are showing clear signs of a commitment to the peace process, even though claims that some of their men held on to weapons are likely to raise Unionist suspicions that there are elements within the IRA prepared to return to violence.

Last September the Provisionals said they got rid of all their remaining guns and explosives - an act carried out under the supervision of Gen de Chastelain, who said he was satisfied that all weapons under their control had been decommissioned.

In his new report to the British and Irish Governments, he said in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the assessment remained correct.

But these new allegations by unnamed security sources are bound to anger the Sinn Fein leadership of Gerry Adams, which is due to have talks with the British and Irish Governments on Monday in a bid to get the troubled peace process back on track.

The Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, the Ulster Unionists, SDLP and the Alliance Party will be at Hillsborough Castle, Co Down, as well, but there is virtually no chance of getting the suspended Northern Ireland Assembly restored in the foreseeable future, even though Secretary of State Peter Hain said today's IMC report was a positive one.

He said: "It shows that the IRA is moving in the right direction and is closing down - no murders, no recruitment and no bank robberies. There is enough progress in this report to make the process of talking meaningful - not an Executive up and running tomorrow, but the beginning of a process of genuine and purposeful engagement."

He added: "For the good of the people of Northern Ireland, we need to strive to get to where we want to go, and not get mired in where we've been."

Today's IMC report also claimed:

* The emergence of two new hardline dissident republican groups;

* Concern that paramilitaries are using some neighbourhood justice schemes as a cover to control communities;

* The loyalist Ulster Defence Association, which shot dead one of its former leaders Jim Gray last year, may disarm if it feels the British Government is addressing socio-economic concerns in Protestant communities.

Irish foreign minister Dermot Ahern, who was with Mr Hain in London for today's publication, will also be at Hillsborough on Monday for separate meetings with the parties.

Mr Hain said it was hugely significant that Gen de Chastelain's IICD saw no reason to change its assessment of the IRA's disarmament last September. But he admitted the picture painted in the report was not perfect.

He said: "It takes more than six months for the closing down of such a complex organisation. Even so, there is understandable and justified concern about criminality.

"We have always said that there are complex assessments to be made to distinguish between the criminal activities of individual PIRA (Provisional IRA) members for their own gain, and criminality carried out by PIRA members which is authorised by the organisation."

Tony Blair's official spokesman said: "What the IMC shows is that most of the signals, most of the signs, are positive.

"What that means is a very significant change in terms of IRA activity. Just, therefore, as it would be unreasonable for us to say everything's perfect, so it would be unreasonable for people to say something significant has not occurred in relation to the IRA.

"What we are not saying is that the Executive should be set up tomorrow, but the dynamic is very firmly in the right direction.

"There are issues in relation to organised crime and intelligence which have to be addressed, but the overall dynamic is very firmly in the right direction.

"The analogy which the IMC uses is of a supertanker which takes time to complete its turn and in doing so there is some turbulence in its wake."