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Wednesday, 4 December, 2002, 10:54 GMT
IRA pressed to 'stretch itself'
It was 30 October, and it was a call that General John de Chastelain could have done without.
The head of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) had just stepped off the train in Dublin when "O'Neill" called.
O'Neill is how he refers to the veteran Belfast republican and 'Army Council' member who is his link to the IRA.
They had met in May, June and September but, now, contact was being suspended.
Any hope of further decommissioning was being put on hold.
The general was being told of the IRA's decision ahead of a statement being released to the media at five o'clock and, five weeks on, de Chastelain has nothing to indicate when O'Neill might be back in touch.
The IRA's decision to break off contact with the IICD is linked to the suspension of Northern Ireland's political institutions and the latest crisis in the peace process.
The background to these developments was a series of alleged IRA actions including weapons development, the theft of police Special Branch documents and intelligence gathering activities which took the republican group inside the Northern Ireland Office - right onto the desks of the secretary of state and security minister.
One of the documents allegedly found in the possession of republicans when police raided homes in Belfast on 4 October was a paper on Special Branch, written by the British security service MI5 and copied to a senior official at the Northern Ireland Office.
The IRA had been behind "enemy" lines and its alleged actions have sparked what many consider to be the most serious crisis yet in the history of the peace process - the most serious because of what it is going to take to put it all back together again.
Republicans believe the bar has been set too high and have made clear that the unionist demand for IRA disbandment is simply "not an option".
That penny seems to have dropped elsewhere and some on the unionist side are now cautioning against getting hung up on the latest "d" word to have been introduced into the peace process.
But while disbandment is for the IRA an "unrealisable demand", that organisation will know it will will have to stretch itself more than ever before if the power-sharing arrangements are to be rebuilt.
"Republicans need to see the colour of the British money before they consider anything," one source told me.
And Gerry Adams went further when he warned there would be no progress until the British and Irish Governments "come forward with time-framed implementation plans for those aspects of the (Good Friday) Agreement which are their responsibility".
Republicans have drawn up an "issues menu" and this time, in this negotiation, they want it in writing.
They say too many British commitments on too many issues, including policing, demilitarisation and on-the-runs, have not been honoured.
That may be true, but the IRA has a job to do in terms of re-building trust on the unionist side.
Its "complete cessation of military operations" - meaning no attacks on the security forces, on loyalists or on so-called "economic targets" - is no longer good enough, and the IRA will know it will have to address other activities such as intelligence gathering and so-called punishment attacks.
As an organisation, it may well remain in existence, but it will have to persuade unionists that there are no plans for another offensive and that its "war" is over.
This will require a re-engagement with de Chastelain's commission and further moves to put "arms beyond use", but republicans are, at this time, dismissive of suggestions that the decommissioning process should become more open or public.
"I think if de Chastelain and the Brits go down that road, it would be madness," a senior Sinn Fein source said.
One way republicans could demonstrate that the "war" is over is by signing up to the new policing arrangements, but they still have major problems with where the power within policing rests, and on the issues of the future of Special Branch and the use of plastic bullets.
That said they also see strategic advantage in "leeching sovereignty" on the policing issue away from London and into the political arena in Northern Ireland and that could have some bearing on future decision making.
While these things are by no means guaranteed and won't easily be delivered, a new IRA statement, a re-engagement with de Chastelain, further decommissioning and a move of some description on policing would all appear possible in the right political context.
Can it be achieved?
The negotiation, the one that really matters between republicans and the governments, is at a very early stage - in an exploratory phase - and it is far too early to speculate about breakthrough or breakdown.
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