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Thursday, 8 March, 2001, 15:19 GMT
IRA move 'is progress of a sort'
Tony Blair and David Trimble
Happier times: But leaders are still searching for peace
By Ireland correspondent David Eades

The IRA's renewed contact with General de Chastelain - the man who heads the independent weapons decommissioning body - is progress of a sort.

It offers the first chink of light for many months for a stalled peace process.

Yet the reality is that this move, described by the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble as a "pre-emptive strike" ahead of Thursday's roundtable talks, guarantees nothing more than the IRA offered last May.

That was the first time it offered to put weapons beyond use completely and verifiably - under certain conditions.

John de Chastelain
John de Chastelain: Dialogue with IRA could prove crucial
Since then Sinn Fein and the IRA have consistently argued that the government has failed to keep its side of the bargain by failing to pull down watchtowers in south Armagh, along with military bases in towns like Magherafelt and Newtownhamilton.

In fact the IRA's offer on decommissioning - not their word - is based on the condition that the causes of conflict are removed. The chief cause in their eyes is the British state's presence in the north of the island of Ireland.

Trimble sanctions

Nonetheless, the IRA has created an opportunity to clear away some of the debris scattered in the path of the peace process.

Its lack of movement in the last year provoked Mr Trimble into instigating sanctions against Sinn Fein, blocking their attendance at ministerial meetings with their counterparts from the Irish Republic - one of the key attractions of the Good Friday Agreement for republicans.

That move sparked a rash of legal challenges, which have still to run their course.

Mr Trimble could now drop the sanctions on the basis that the IRA is once again engaged in the process of decommissioning.

If that is the case, the first minister is not showing his hand yet.

'Mere conversations'

Ahead of Thursday's talks at Hillsborough he said the IRA must agree "modalities" for putting arms beyond use.

"Mere conversations" were not enough, he said.

Clearly, then, the negotiations between parties and governments are more than just a rubber stamping of any pre-agreed formula for getting this peace process over the current hurdle.

Tony Blair is still searching for a deal, which resolves the other key issues as well - winning nationalist support for the new police service, and achieving further moves to reduce the British military presence in the province.

Neither the parties themselves nor the Dublin government appear to share his ambition - or at least a belief it can be realised - at this stage.

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See also:

06 May 00 | Northern Ireland
IRA arms offer
03 Dec 99 | Northern Ireland
The general who likes to destroy weapons
08 Mar 01 | Northern Ireland
Talks to revive NI peace process
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