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Friday, 19 October, 2001, 21:02 GMT 22:02 UK
Question time for IRA leadership
As efforts continue to keep the Northern Ireland political process on the rails, BBC NI political correspondent Martina Purdy says a substantial act of decommissioning will be required to save it from collapse.

For the peace process, it might look like the worst of times - but it could be the best of times.

The executive is hanging by a thread - but there is still a chance of a rescue, one that might take Stormont from the brink of collapse into the safety of long-term power-sharing.

The political reality is that this will require substantial moves on decommissioning, and it now seems closer than ever.

Even the resignation of the Ulster Unionist ministers from the power-sharing executive at midnight on Thursday - an act that once would have wrecked any chance of an arms breakthrough - has not dampened the speculation.

Indeed, a briefing by a senior Sinn Fein source, aimed at calming the media and the republican grassroots, was so mixed in its signals that in some quarters it had the opposite effect.

Context

The source said that there had not yet been a deal on the arms issue - and made clear that this could only happen in a certain context.

The conditions he laid out included a commitment by the Ulster Unionists to work the institutions in good faith, and to accept the determination of the de Chastelain arms commission.


As Mr Trimble has pointed out, republicans have had a lot longer than a week

The source also pointed to the need for demilitarisation and progress on what he called the equality agenda.

But his message held out hope of the IRA putting weapons beyond use.

He said that it was possible the IRA could make a move that was more significant even than its ceasefire.

But he pointed out too that such a move by its nature would therefore be harder to achieve.

Meetings

However, all sides have been working to achieve it. Even in the midst of international conflict, the Prime Minister Tony Blair has met Gerry Adams - more often than even was reported in the media.

David Trimble
David Trimble: Seven days for a rethink

The last known meeting took place two weeks ago in Downing Street - and took in a wide range of issues, from IRA arms to British Army bases in Northern Ireland.

Can weapons be put beyond use in a verifiable and meaningful way once and for all? Yes. Will it be done? Perhaps.

But the outcome is still not guaranteed, according to the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. As one Irish official said: "We're all in the waiting room."

Time is of the essence. The Bible says God created the world in seven days. And from the midnight resignations, there is seven days for Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble to change his mind and restore his ministers.

But as Mr Trimble has pointed out, republicans have had a lot longer than a week. It is questionable whether Secretary of State John Reid would even allow the full seven days to elapse before he stepped in and suspended what is left of the institutions.


The head of the arms commission would also have to issue a statement verifying that weapons had been put beyond use

Dr Reid - who met the Irish Foreign minister in Dublin on Thursday - has refused to suspend immediately, but has warned time is running out.

The next few days will be crucial. If the speculation about an IRA convention - which cannot be ruled out - is accurate, and the IRA does agree to put weapons beyond use, a statement would likely come early next week.

The head of the arms commission, John de Chastelain, would also have to issue a statement verifying that weapons had been put beyond use. That is only part of what is likely to be a complex choreography of words and deeds.

Some Ulster Unionists, such as David Burnside, MP for South Antrim, have already rejected such a move, and even gone so far as to say that regardless of the arms issue, Ulster Unionists should seek to renegotiate the institutions.

Those unionists who would be tempted by the prospect, however, will feel the almighty pressure of international opinion as well as their own government's ire if they pursue such an agenda.

Gerry Adams
Gerry Adams: "Outcome still not guaranteed"

What is clear is that if the IRA does move, it will have the blessing of the British, Irish and Washington governments. Unionists will not want to be on the wrong side of such a powerful coalition.

One mighty argument motivating republicans to decommission is that it would save the institutions, and allow the IRA to argue it was the saviour of the peace process.

Republicans will not move because the unionists want them to, because Dublin demands it, or because it could cost them influence in the United States, although these are factors.

Questions

They will move because it suits their interest and their cause.

The questions the IRA leadership will be posing to the grassroots must surely include: Does decommissioning bring a strategic gain? Does it wrongfoot anti-Agreement unionists? Does it move republicans closer to their goals? That is Sinn Fein in government in Belfast and Dublin? A united Ireland?

If the answer to those questions is yes, then the IRA is more likely than not to respond.

Whether or not the arms issue becomes a panacea for all that ails the process is another matter.

Ulster Unionists have warned the process of decommissioning must result in all weapons being put beyond use.

And there is anxiety among republicans that more difficulties await if unionists insist Sinn Fein must bear the responsibility for any further IRA actions or inactions.

But one thing is for sure, the resolution of the arms issue will lift a heavy burden from the process.


Assembly back

IRA arms breakthrough

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See also:

19 Oct 01 | Northern Ireland
Still time for progress says Reid
25 Jul 01 | Northern Ireland
A package of possibilities?
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