IRA 'close to deal on arms' as Reid extends deadline

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The Government injected a further six weeks of life into the faltering Irish peace process last night, amid reports that the IRA might be on the verge of decommissioning its weapons.

Although the RUC Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, said he had no specific intelligence that decommissioning was planned, other security figures were later said to be predicting that two IRA arms dumps already inspected by international monitors could be put beyond use.

If true, this would be seen as a huge breakthrough in the peace process, since Unionists are demanding actual decommissioning of IRA arms to keep them on board.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, John Reid, announced a one-day suspension of the Good Friday Agreement which comes into effect at midnight tonight, a technicality which gives the Belfast Assembly six more weeks of life. The move was made in the hope that progress would be achieved in arms decommissioning by early November. The tactic was opposed by the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein.

In a further move evidently designed to make life easier for the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, Mr Reid made it clear he believed this was the last time a six-week extension could be used.

This signals that six weeks from now, in the event that no breakthrough is made, the Government's options will have narrowed to either declaring an open-ended suspension, during which the Belfast Assembly would be closed down, or calling fresh elections.

Mr Reid indicated that the previous six-week extension, which ends at midnight, had allowed progress to be made on some seemingly intractable issues, particularly on policing.

He made it clear that his decision was taken with some reluctance, explaining: "None of the options available to me are particularly attractive."

The Government has felt that a longer suspension carries the risk that the Belfast Assembly might never be got up and running again.

The chief hope for progress over the coming weeks is that Sinn Fein and the IRA will be so shaken by the wave of anti-terrorist sentiment in the wake of the American attacks that they will move further on the arms issue.

The hardening of international and especially US opinion on such matters has already clearly given republicans pause for thought, producing as it did an unusually conciliatory IRA statement earlier this week.

A clear majority of Unionists are now prepared to watch the Good Friday Agreement collapse rather than consent to its continuation in the absence of arms decommissioning. This means that the coming weeks may amount to the last chance of saving the agreement.

* Orangemen have been cleared to march through Aberdeen tomorrow after the city council lost a legal battle to prevent the local Orange Lodge staging a parade and religious service. Parades in the city were halted 14 years ago after an outbreak of violence. The Orange Order described the decision as "a victory for democracy", but a spokesman for the Catholic Church said he feared it could lead to divisions and conflict.