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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 September, 2004, 16:50 GMT 17:50 UK
Talks 'inching towards a settlement'
BBC Northern Ireland security editor Brian Rowan examines the background moves being made to broker a political settlement and the return of power-sharing between unionists and republicans.

The IRA contribution could mean closure on the arms issue

The Northern Ireland peace process is in another of those political waiting rooms.

The DUP is waiting for the IRA, republicans are waiting for the DUP and the governments, and all of us looking in after Leeds Castle, are waiting to see just how and when things will develop from here.

Will we see a plan 'A' unfold, or will it take some sort of plan 'B' to pave the way to a once unthinkable deal - a political agreement between republicans and Ian Paisley's DUP?

There is a sense that the process is inching ever closer to achieving that.

And, there is lots of speculation about what the IRA contribution to all of this will be - a contribution that could see that organisation leave the stage and could see closure on the issue of arms.

General John de Chastelain and Andrew Sens of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning are still in Ireland and still waiting.

'More work'

But suggestions of an imminent IRA statement on its future intentions - a text traditionally signed by 'P O'Neill' - all seems a little bit premature at this time.

There is more work and more talking to be done.

That said, there are strong indications of what the IRA would be prepared to do in the event of a "comprehensive" deal being achieved - one involving republicans, the governments and the DUP with "working politics" as one of its elements:

  • All activities would end - meeting the test the governments set in their joint declaration last spring;

  • significant acts of decommissioning would occur within the time frame of a few months;

  • de Chastelain and Sens could report that the threat of the IRA's guns has gone;

  • the IRA would melt away and 'P O'Neill' would speak no more on the political and peace processes. All future republican talking would be left to Sinn Fein.

    That is not to say that the IRA is planning what it calls an "army convention" at this time, or that its leadership will move to stand the organisation down under the terms of its "constitution".

    General de Chastelain is still in Ireland and is waiting
    But what is an "army" without guns? The prize on offer is the end of the IRA as a military force, but that prize depends on the "comprehensive" deal.

    Ian Paisley says "seeing is believing", but republicans need to be convinced that the DUP is up for political power-sharing and they want to see more from the governments on their contribution to the "comprehensive" deal.

    On some issues, there has been progress:

  • The British Government will soon announce an inquiry into the 1989 murder of the Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane. But will it meet the demand of the Finucane family for this to be in public or will it be in private?

  • on another controversial issue - plastic bullets - there is now a government text in the negotiations saying they "should" be withdrawn by July next year. But does "should" mean "will" and what is the alternative?

  • there is also the possibility that removal of some anti-terrorist legislation in Northern Ireland will be speeded up, with the suggestion this will occur at the end of the normalisation or demilitarisation process.

    On these and other issues there are other questions and, if the IRA is to be moved, then republicans say more is still needed.

    More - what republicans call "front loading" - will have to happen sooner within the 18-month time frame set for the scaling down of security.

    This might be possible in the context of the IRA leaving the stage.

    The need for soldiers and police officers and security bases is measured not just against the threat posed by the various paramilitary organisations, but against their capability also.

    And security assessments would unquestionably change in the context of an unarmed IRA.

    But this is not just a negotiation about the IRA and its future.

    "From a republican perspective the biggest issue that needs to be crunched more than any other is policing," a senior Sinn Fein source said.

    A party paper in the talks seeks agreement on the time frame for the transfer of policing and justice powers, the model (what type of ministry), the powers to be transferred and relationships between north and south.

    Some are even speculating about an election
    The Sinn Fein preference is for a joint policing and justice department with two ministers of equal status.

    But all of this is a long way from being agreed and it all needs unionist approval.

    On this and other matters there is still a considerable amount of work to be done.

    But plan 'A' may have to wait for plan 'B' - some agreement between the governments and republicans that gets the process moving.

    Some are even speculating about an election - something that is being floated as "a plan 'B' option".

    "Some believe the people are ahead of the politicians," the PUP leader, David Ervine, told BBC News Online.

    "If the politicians won't play, throw it back to the people. With the fear factor (the IRA) gone, you could be looking at an even greater sense of the people being ahead of the politicians."

    It all suggests that there is still plenty to be done before i's are dotted and t's crossed.

    And, in the political waiting room, two of the principal players - the DUP and Sinn Fein - are still not talking. Ian Paisley refuses to speak to republicans.

    So, can that once unthinkable deal be achieved without direct dialogue?

    Some believe it can and will, but the question remains: When?






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