IRA hasn't begun to put weapons 'beyond use,' disarmament chief confirms

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Irish Republican Army hasn't begun to scrap any of its stockpiled weapons, the head of the disarmament commission confirmed today in a report that sharpened arguments tearing apart Northern Ireland's joint Catholic­Protestant government.

The British and Irish governments jointly published the latest report from retired Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, who since 1997 has been waiting to oversee the gradual disarmament of the IRA as well as outlawed Unionist groups.

De Chastelain confirmed that an IRA representative was continuing to meet his disarmament commission, which includes US and Finnish diplomats and weapons experts, but that their talks since March had yet to produce any concrete commitments or action.

The IRA's refusal to begin putting its weapons "beyond use," as the group pledged to do in May 2000, provoked the resignation on Sunday of David Trimble, Unionist leader of Northern Ireland's four­party coalition.

Trimble's departure could lead within weeks to the suspension or collapse of the entire power­sharing administration, centerpiece of the Good Friday peace accord of 1998. Northern Ireland's legislature is required to elect a new first minister by Aug. 12, or be dissolved, unless Britain steps in and reimposes direct control.

De Chastelain said his commission had a lengthy meeting with the IRA representative last week, during which the IRA reaffirmed it intended eventually to fulfill its May 2000 pledge.

"We have, however, been unable to ascertain how the IRA will put its arms beyond use, except for the assurance that it will be complete and verifiable," de Chastelain wrote, adding that the IRA also refused to say when it intended to start.

He noted that his commission had now failed to deliver progress in line with the Good Friday accord's expectation of total paramilitary disarmament by May 2000, and a subsequent target of June 2001 set by the British and Irish governments.

The general also confirmed that his talks with the Ulster Defense Association and Ulster Volunteer Force, outlawed groups based in militant Protestant neighborhoods, had likewise borne no fruit. Those groups are not represented in Northern Ireland's government.

Speculation mounted, meanwhile, that the other three parties in the coalition might vote to expel the IRA­linked Sinn Fein from the Cabinet if the IRA refused to move in coming weeks.

This has long been the two Protestant parties' preferred option. Until now, the major Catholic­backed party in the administration, the moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party, has refused to consider that option.

But the SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon, the coalition's senior Catholic, said the question of excluding Sinn Fein would be primarily up to the British and Irish governments.

Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander who now serves as education minister in Northern Ireland, reacted angrily Monday to any suggestions his party should be excluded from power because of IRA policy.

"I am absolutely amazed at Seamus Mallon's comments. The right and entitlements of those who voted for the Good Friday agreement cannot be diminished or diluted by David Trimble or Seamus Mallon," McGuinness said.

"This process is supposed to be about including people, and we are the largest nationalist party in the north," he said, referring to the fact that Sinn Fein last month outpolled the moderate SDLP among Catholics for the first time in Northern Ireland elections.