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Wednesday, 17 October, 2001, 22:25 GMT 23:25 UK
Significant IRA move said to be possible
Intensive negotiations have been taking place to secure a deal aimed at saving the Northern Ireland Assembly and the North-South institutions from collapse.

A significant move by the IRA on the arms issue is said to be possible, but only if the the Ulster Unionist Party and the British Government create a new political context. BBC NI political correspondent Mark Simpson assesses the prospects of the talks bearing fruit.

The peace process is inching towards a breakthrough... but, in Northern Ireland, inches seem more like miles.

And that is why there is caution in political circles about the chances of a deal, in spite of the positive signals which have emerged in recent days.

"It's still a work in progress," said one key player, who is at centre of the current negotiations.

Clearly, there is a huge amount of work going on in the background. And although the prime minister's priority is the situation in Afghanistan at the moment, Mr Blair is said to be closely involved in the delicate Northern Ireland negotiations.

At a one-hour briefing for selected journalists in Belfast on Wednesday afternoon, a senior Sinn Fein source offered a republican perspective on the ongoing talks.

Full part

He said that Sinn Fein want a commitment from David Trimble that he is prepared to keep the assembly and the North-South bodies alive, and allow Sinn Fein ministers to play their full part.

Republicans also want the British Government to move on a range of issues - including demilitarisation.

It is being made clear by David Trimble that the ministers could be quickly re-instated

According to the Sinn Fein source, if this new context is created, movement from the IRA is possible on the arms issue. Indeed what is being talked about is an act greater in its significance than the IRA ceasefire itself.

The source said that no final decisions had been made by the IRA, and no IRA convention had been called.

The negotiations are clearly at a crucial stage, and involve London, Dublin and Washington.

What may be seen as a big setback for the process is the resignation of the three Ulster Unionist ministers from their posts at Stormont. Their resignations - along with the two DUP ministers - take effect from midnight on Thursday.

'Good beginning'

However, it is being made clear by David Trimble that the ministers could be quickly re-instated if there was a "good beginning" to IRA decommissioning.

What he means by a "good beginning" is that the IRA begins putting its weapons beyond use in a way that is verified by the head of the international arms commission, General John de Chastelain.

It seems there is now a window of opportunity for all sides to move.

Unionists are expecting the IRA to "jump first", but it is unlikely that the republican movement would consider moving at all if it did not receive concrete assurances that others would respond positively.

It all boils down to trust. At the moment, the level of trust between unionists and republicans can be measured in millimetres rather than centimetres.

But while the talking is continuing, a ground-breaking deal cannot be ruled out.

Assembly back

IRA arms breakthrough


Loyalist ceasefire





See also:

17 Oct 01 | Northern Ireland
Speculation mounts over IRA move
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