Ultimate prize is within our grasp, says Mandelson

Peter Mandelson described the IRA's offer to put weapons and explosives beyond use as "a very significant development" that raised the prospect of real decommissioning. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said yesterday he was confident the proper concerns of David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, had been addressed by the statement.

Mr Mandelson, speaking in the Commons, said: "I regard the IRA statement as a very significant development. For the first time there is a commitment to put weapons completely and verifiably beyond use, in a context which is realistic rather than simply aspirational." He said that amounted to a "more clear-cut assurance of the IRA's peaceful intentions than we have ever heard before".

Mr Mandelson added: "I feel hopeful and confident that the ultimate prize - stable, inclusive government in Northern Ireland and an unbreakable peace - will at long last be within our grasp." He called on the main loyalist paramilitaries to follow suit and said the two men appointed to head the inspections of arms dump, Cyril Ramaphosa, former head of the African National Congress, and Martti Ahtisaari, former president of Finland, would make their first visit to Belfast on Monday.

Mr Mandelson confirmed he would bring forward legislation to restore devolved government by 22 May. He also held out the prospect of "further substantial measures to normalise security arrangements" in Northern Ireland by June next year. "I believe all friends and supporters of responsible, forward-looking Unionism will conclude that the proposals I have outlined today, buttressed by the weekend's statement by the IRA, provide theconditions on which he [Mr Trimble] can lead his party back into government, confident that their long-standing and proper concerns have now been addressed."

Andrew Mackay, the Conservative spokesman on Northern Ireland, said his party had "concerns and reservations" about the future of the peace process. The Commons would want "all" the arms dumps to be available for inspection. "Just a spasmodic visit from time to time will not regain the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland, who have suffered so much from terrorism, both republican and loyalist over the last 30 years," Mr Mackay said.

Mr Trimble said his party was being "properly cautious" about the IRA statement. "While it does appear to break new ground, there are matters there that should be probed and, until we get sufficiently satisfactory answers on those and related matters as well, it would be premature to make a decision on this matter. It's our desire, very much so, that this process should succeed, that we should see devolution restored, provided it is done on a sound basis."

But Mr Trimble warned: "Irrespective of whatever decision you may make with regard to the restoration of devolution, this party will make its own decision as to what role it will play in future institutions. This party's decision will always be its decision itself and should it consider that at any point in the future there is a failure by republicans to carry out the process, it will act accordingly."

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