US presses IRA over foreign operations

The US administration is known to have conveyed to senior republicans that there should be no more incidents such as the 2001 episode in which three republicans visited FARC rebels in Colombia.

Confirming this, the White House said: "Consistent with the IRA's commitment, we understand that the IRA and its members will no longer have any contact with any foreign paramilitary and terrorist organisation." The Bush administration is strongly supportive of the conduct of the peace process by London and Dublin, but IRA contacts abroad are seen by the US as potentially an American national security issue.

This emerged as it became apparent that a great many important loose ends remain following the IRA's promise to commit itself to "purely political and democratic programmes". For one thing, the three republicans arrested in Colombia remain on the run.

Several dozen republicans are also technically on the run having fled from Northern Ireland during the troubles, in some cases many years ago. Arrangements are made for them to return without fear of prosecution. At the same time minor republican groups Continuity IRA and the Real IRA have signalled that they disapprove of the mainstream IRA's move, and intend to keep on with their campaigns which are regarded as small scale but dangerous.

Ruairi O Bradaigh, who was predecessor to Gerry Adams as president of Sinn Fein and has links with Continuity IRA, described the IRA move as a betrayal of republican principles. He said the IRA was being "slowly and steadily absorbed into the English system in Ireland", saying it should disband completely.

The authorities remain worried about the capacity of Continuity IRA and the Real IRA to carry out acts of violence, but are nonetheless proceeding to dismantle watchtowers and other security installations along the south Armagh border.

It is believed that the move, which has been criticised by unionist politicians, had actually been suggested not by the Government but by the army and police.

The watchtowers, which have been in place for almost 20 years, are said to be very expensive to maintain, with equipment which is outdated and of decreasing value to the security forces.

On the political front serious negotiations are thought unlikely to start until January, when the authorities hope an Independent Monitoring Commission will report that the IRA has ceased illegal activities.

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain said yesterday he would not seek to influence the commission into giving the IRA a clean bill of health when it reports in October and again in January. He added: "In the meantime, we'll be taking forward a process of political negotiation, engagement and normalisation of policing and withdrawal of military support for the police."

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