New hope pulsed through the Irish peace process yesterday when Sinn Fein signalled that an IRA move on arms decommissioning could be on the cards. While republicans indicated that such a move was very much in the realms of possibility rather than a done deal, the language used by Sinn Fein sources set a new upbeat tone.
A very senior Sinn Fein source said that, subject to conditions and in the proper context, the IRA might make a move that would be greater in its importance than the IRA ceasefire of 1994.
But he stressed that no final decisions had been made by the IRA, and no IRA convention had been called. A formal convention of IRA members is needed to sanction formally moves by the organisation's army council.
But in the meantime David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, remains poised to withdraw his party's three ministers from the Northern Ireland Executive. He may lodge their resignation letters today, to take effect before the weekend. There are suggestions in Unionist party quarters, however, that a significant IRA arms move could mean the resignations might not go through, or alternatively that they might later be reversed.
Recent weeks have brought a flurry of rumours and reports that some form of IRA decommissioning was on the way, though security sources took the view that such a development was a possibility rather than a probability.
Sinn Fein is pressing for concessions from the Government on demilitarisation, attempting to extract assurances that the Army presence, especially in border areas, will be wound down as quickly as possible. The republicans are also seeking guarantees that Mr Trimble will not repeat his action of resigning as the Executive's First Minister. They also want promises that he will drop the present bar on Sinn Fein ministers attending cross-border meetings with the Irish government.
Tony Blair, questioned by a Unionist MP in the Commons yesterday on decommissioning, said he hoped stability could be brought to the institutions, with all sides committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means.
He added: "That is the very reason we are so insistent that weapons are put beyond use by all those groups who have acted and used terrorism in the past 30 years to do so much damage to Northern Ireland."
In Ardoyne yesterday, where the long-running Protestant protest centring on Holy Cross primary school is still going on, a blast bomb thrown by loyalists caused damage to a Catholic house.
Near Omagh, in Co Tyrone, police said lives were saved with the discovery of a 130lb primed bomb. A husband and wife were being questioned about the find at Sixmilecross near Omagh, where 29 people were killed by a bomb in 1998.
Security chiefs believe dissident republicans opposed to the peace process had been planning an attack. The explosives were discovered inside a creamery can in a rear shed at a house 11 miles from Omagh.
RUC Superintendent James Baxter said: "A bomb of this size could have caused any amount of death and destruction. The people of Omagh do not need any reminder of the devastation and destruction which a bomb can cause. I have no doubt with the recovery of this bomb, we have saved lives."
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