The full extent of IRA disarmament is the subject of two jarringly contradictory reports by two official bodies in Northern Ireland.
One report, from the Independent Monitoring Commission, suggested the IRA had not, as it declared last year, decommissioned its entire arsenal, and some members may have retained weapons.
The other, from the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, headed by the Canadian General John de Chastelain, reported differences between intelligence agencies on either side of the border but concluded decommissioning had been complete.
The IRA was said to have reduced its activities so much that, in the words of the Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, a sea change had happened. But he added that the relevant report "does not paint a picture of perfection". Tony Blair added: "Let me make it clear once again, all criminal activity has to cease. That is absolutely crucial."
There is no suggestion that the IRA has any intention of going back to terrorism, but yesterday's conflicting reports show distinct differences of opinion, in intelligence and political circles, about the scale of its continuing activities.
The confusion is highly important, since a restoration of devolved government is unlikely unless the Rev Ian Paisley agrees to lead his Democratic Unionist party into an administration which includes Sinn Fein. Yesterday's absence of clarity means that, although talks are to start next week, Mr Paisley is unlikely to go into government in the foreseeable future.
Sinn Fein had a heated reaction to the suggestion that the IRA had held back guns. Its chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, declared: "I think it's, with respect, bullshit of the highest order."
The main report came from the Independent Monitoring Commission, which declared it had no doubt that the IRA "has taken the strategic decision to eschew terrorism and pursue a political path." Describing this as a difficult period for the IRA, it added: "Like an oil tanker, the organisation will take a while to turn completely, and there is likely to be added turbulence in the wash as it does so. It would not therefore surprise us if the picture at this stage, while positive overall, was somewhat mixed."
It said the IRA had not disbanded and continued to raise funds, launder money, and was involved in the purchase of property and legitimate businesses.
The report added: "The organisation continues to accumulate information about individuals and groups, including members of the security forces, though we do not think there is any intent to mount attacks."
The IMC said it had reports that not all the IRA's weapons and ammunition were handed over. These reports were not able to indicate precisely what is the nature or volume of remaining weapons but suggested they were not just a limited number.
General de Chastelain said he had been informed by security sources of intelligence that some individuals and groups within the IRA had retained weapons, including handguns. There was no indication the quantities of arms were substantial, the general said, and no suggestion that any guns had been retained with the approval of the IRA leadership.
He had discussed this with senior police officers in the Irish Republic, who told him reliable sources had produced no intelligence suggesting any arms had been retained. He had also contacted the IRA, which insisted all its guns had been decommissioned. The General said that "in the absence of evidence to the contrary" he still believed all the arms had gone.
The DUP MP Gregory Campbell said: "If the military wing of Sinn Fein still retains guns, and their members are still engaged in some activity, no reasonable person would expect us to go into government with them. But we will keep applying the pressure until we get IRA being history, not involved in criminal activity, not having any guns."
How the commissions differ
MONITORING COMMISSION REPORTED:
* It firmly believed IRA has taken strategic decision to end its armed campaign and pursue a political course
* IRA still involved in political intelligence gathering
* Members involved in several beatings, though apparently without the consent of the leadership
* Money being laundered and stashed away in legitimate businesses and property
* No killings
* No bank robberies
* No recruitment
* Reports that the IRA had held on to some weapons it was supposed to have decommissioned. The reports are unconfirmed and, if true, it is not known how much the IRA leadership knew.
* Said it had checked the weapons reports and had been told there was no indication that any weaponry retained was substantial
* Said police in Irish Republic had no intelligence, suggesting the IRA still had guns
* Said it stuck to its assessment that all IRA guns had been dealt with.Reuse content