Two international monitors who visited Belfast yesterday are to return to Ireland secretly within weeks to make their first inspection of IRA arms dumps.
They will be flown in under cover from Finland and South Africa, probably before the end of the month, to be shown three important dumps, which they will continue to inspect regularly.
This unpublicised visit will be the follow-up to yesterday's trip in which Cyril Ramaphosa, former secretary general of the African National Congress, and the former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari met important players in the peace process.
Their visit coincided with the announcement by the Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Mandelson, of a new "Royal Ulster Constabulary George Cross Foundation" which he said would honour the long list of achievements and sacrifices of the RUC. The foundation will help provide scholarships and support policing innovations.
This was immediately seen as a move to soothe Unionist sensitivities in advance of Saturday's key meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council, which has the power to veto the latest weapons initiative.
A nationalist source said: "This looks like a sort of consolation prize to the Unionists."
Most observers believe Mr Mandelson is likely to resist Unionist demands to reinstate the name of the RUC in the name of the new police force.
A new Police Bill is to be introduced at Westminster today, alongside a new measure intended to deal with Unionist concerns on the flying of the Union flag, a subject which has become a pressure point.
The arms inspectors, Mr Ramaphosa and Mr Ahtisaari, said yesterday: "We do not underestimate the profound importance and the unpreced- ented nature of our task. We hope that our efforts will prove of enduring benefit to all the people here."
The two men met Tony Blair in Downing Street yesterday before travelling to Belfast.
The Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, said after meeting the arms inspectors that their task was one part of a process, which he wanted to see culminating in complete arms decommissioning. "What we would like to know as well as finding outdetails of the confidencebuilding measure is to find out more details about when this process is going to be initiated and when it is going to be undertaken completely and finally, to use the IRA's own words."
Mr Trimble is expected to seek further concessions from the Government in the run-up to Saturday's meeting.
The question of guns held by loyalist paramilitary groups was raised yesterday by the head of the Church of Ireland, Archbishop Robin Eames, who said those groups must help guarantee that violence was over forever.
He added: "The recent response to political proposals by the IRA represents radical change when viewed from within Irish republicanism.
"We look for movement from loyalist sources as well. Unionists and nationalists need confidence-building measures, but they need them in equal measure. An end once and for all to terrorism is an essential to progress in Ireland.
"The time for terror is over. The time for peace is here."
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