Ulster on the brink of peace as hopes rise of IRA arms handover

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The Independent Online
THE NORTHERN Ireland peace talks were moving into what appeared to be their final critical phase last night as Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, sought to produce viable proposals from an exhausting week of negotiations.

The fifth and apparently last day of talks produced the now-familiar mood swings from hope to pessimism as the two governments strived to reconcile Unionist and republican positions on arms decommissioning.

As the talks continued into the evening, they appeared to centre on the question of sequencing - that is, exactly when IRA decommissioning might start once Sinn Fein had entered into a new Northern Ireland government to be headed by the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble.

During the day, the Canadian General John de Chastelain, who is heading the International Commission on Decommissioning, produced what London and Dublin regarded as a helpful report on the prospects for the process and on the modalities of exactly how it might be carried out.

The general declared: "The Sinn Fein statement of July 1 offers promise that decommissioning by all paramilitary groups may now begin." His report may form part of a web of safeguards and fail-safe mechanisms, which will be set up to ensure that republicans honour any promise to disarm.

General de Chastelain had been due to present his report to the British and Irish governments on Tuesday but was asked to postpone it because of fresh Sinn Fein proposals.

But all parties were yesterday conscious of the looming flashpoint of Drumcree. Unprecedented security measures, including water cannon, were being put in place in Portadown, Co Armagh, before tomorrow's contentious Orange parade.

Unionists want "cast-iron" guarantees that any Sinn Fein pledge on disarmament would be kept to; republicans want immediate entry into government. The two sides continued their rhetorical battle over the airwaves yesterday, each seeking to brand the other as unreasonable and untrustworthy.

The Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginnis said the de Chastelain report did not go far enough, saying an absolute commitment to decommissioning was required.

He added: "One is obviously concerned that a very neutral, non-political, factual and technical document by [General] de Chastelain is not able to report with any confidence - in fact not able to report at all - a conviction that people are committed and totally committed to meeting their obligations under the terms of the [Good Friday] Agreement."

Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein said: "We've jumped. If I look behind me I see the spoilt children of Unionism rooted firmly in the past. That is not good enough. It's not good enough for the nationalist community and I don't think it's good enough for the Unionist community."

Sinn Fein's negotiator Francie Molloy said that his party would do its best to bring about decommissioning, adding: "We have made proposals to move the situation on. We are living up to our part of the deal and we will do our best endeavours to bring it about, but we don't have control of the weapons."

As far as loyalist paramilitary groupings are concerned, the two governments may draw comfort from the comments of Gary McMichael, leader of the Ulster Democratic Party, which is close to the illegal Ulster Defence Association. He said: "A statement from the IRA committing itself to the decommissioning pro-cess would assist the chances of a resolution of the outstanding issues." Some took this as a hint that the UDA might be open to decommissioning its weapons.