Unionists want early talks with inspectors

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The Ulster Unionists will seek an early meeting with the Government's appointed arms inspectors as pressure heightened today on them to accept the IRA's offer to bury its weapons for good.

They want talks with former ANC general secretary Cyril Ramaphosa and former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, the two representatives who have been asked to check the arms dumps at regular intervals.

The pair will report back to General John de Chastelain, the head of the international decommissioning body overseeing the process.

The Ulster Unionists' ruling council will consider the IRA's pledge to put all their guns and explosives beyond use later this month, but there are already clear signs that senior party officers may be prepared to accept the offer.

This would clear the way for the re-establishment of the power sharing executive at Stormont.

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble said there were some "quite positive" elements in the IRA statement - but he insisted it was important to proceed cautiously.

He told BBC'1s Breakfast with Frost: "I would caution people against throwing their caps into the air.

"We have to explore just exactly what is meant by this inspection process, how it's going to be conducted, what procedures are going to be adopted to ensure that guns have remained secure.

"Then we want to ensure that this form of the process of inspection is part of an overall process leading to full and complete decommissioning and that when the IRA say that they will put their guns beyond use completely and verifiably, it is complete, it is verifiable, that they are permanently completely finally beyond use.

"We expect that to be a process. We know it will take some time but we need to be sure that is what's happening.

"I hope they've crossed that rubicon."

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson told the programme he always believed a move over weapons could only be achieved if politics were seen to be working, creating a "balance of confidence" on both sides.

"That's what we've got, that's the basis for the way forward. If we don't seize it, if we let it slip from our grasp, I don't think that we will very easily again reproduce those conditions for peace in Northern Ireland."

Asked why weapons could not be destroyed, he said: "The decommissioning legislation provides either the destruction of arms or for their being permanently inaccessible or unusable.

"So as long as we're within the framework of the legislation that exists, we will be untying the knot that is still in the way of our implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

"The first stage is to get the arms safe and secure in those dumps and they will be independently inspected at regular intervals in the future.

"The next step is to ensure that they remain secure and safe, that they're put permanently beyond use. That's what the coming year or so is going to bring us.

"That's the job of the de Chastelain decommissioning body to deal with, working very closely with the paramilitary organisations, to sort out within the framework of the legislation how that will happen."

He ruled out imposing a deadline and said: "I'm more interested in making a start than talking so much about the finish that we never make the start."