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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 November, 2004, 17:16 GMT
Pondering the arms question

By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

The Halloween deadline for progress on restoring devolution came and went without frightening any Northern Ireland politicians into action.

Now Irish Premier Bertie Ahern is trying to concentrate the DUP's minds with a new target date - the anniversary of last year's assembly elections, 26 November.

The DUP insist they will not be pushed into agreeing what Ian Paisley terms a "rag bag deal".

The issues of guns and government once again dominate politics
The issues of guns and government once again dominate politics
But with the governments still pondering when might be the best time to go public with their proposals on changing the Stormont rules, the taoiseach is clearly trying to put the DUP on the back foot by spelling out the sticking points in more detail than before.

The DUP leader has responded by accusing the taoiseach of showing "bad faith to the democratic community".

Last month, Sinn Fein's Mitchel McLaughlin used the BBC's Inside Politics programme to accuse the DUP of trying to humiliate republicans by demanding visible IRA decommissioning.

Now Bertie Ahern, in his speech to Trinity College's Philosophical Society, has echoed that line.

The taoiseach recognised the need for more transparent disarmament than in the past.

But in a clear side swipe at the DUP, he added that "if people make unreasonable demands that carry a resonance of humiliation for any side, these will be entirely counter-productive and will not work.

"It would be tragically ironic if the prospect of ending IRA activity and capability was lost because it did not meet unrealistic thresholds of visibility," he said.

So what are those "unrealistic thresholds"?

The parties and the two governments are slow to confirm precise details but one informed source told the BBC the DUP want still photographs of IRA disarmament and "lots of them".

It seems the most republicans are prepared to concede is allowing the head of the arms commission, General de Chastelain, to provide an inventory of the arms he has destroyed and to set out a timetable for complete decommissioning, potentially by the end of the year.

General John de Chastelain heads the arms commission
General John de Chastelain heads the arms commission
There are other gaps to be bridged. The DUP remains reluctant to concede a target date for the devolution of policing and justice, whilst Sinn Fein see it as a pre-requisite.

A senior DUP source confirmed the party reduced its "testing period" for republican bona fides from six to five months at the Leeds Castle talks.

However, Sinn Fein continue to reject any "quarantine" period.

But right now those difficulties appear less central than the debate over the Kalashnikovs and the polaroids. As one Irish source asked: "What is assurance, and what is humiliation?"

When asked again this week about visible decommissioning, Mitchel McLaughlin said Sinn Fein was open to reasonable demands, but suggested republicans did not regard photographic evidence as reasonable.

He said the arms issue could be resolved but added it would be on the basis of the Good Friday Agreement and the agreed mechanism "it is not for the DUP to determine".

He added: "But I think what people will judge is the DUP have brought forward additional issues to prevent agreement."

Although Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy is said to be reluctant to make anyone unemployed before Christmas, a further reduction in MLA salaries cannot be ruled out

The DUP's Gregory Campbell insisted his party's demands for photographic evidence were "eminently reasonable" because the community needs proof that the IRA is "out of guns and out of business.

"We have to have and we think the wider community need to have some photographic evidence that the arms are being totally decommissioned," he said.

"That's where we fell down before and we have to make sure we don't fall down in that regard next time."

Those inclined to take an understanding view of the DUP argue they are merely trying to avoid a re-run of last October's Hillsborough debacle when Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble backed out on a deal which would not have convinced the unionist on the street.

Those less well disposed wonder whether the DUP is playing electoral games, is struggling with internal divisions (something its MPs strongly deny) or is simply biologically incapable of delivering a deal.

Bertie Ahern warns of the consequences of "squandering" this window of opportunity.

Although Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy is said to be reluctant to make anyone unemployed before Christmas, a further reduction in MLA salaries cannot be ruled out.

The Trinity College philosophers who made up Bertie Ahern's audience are no doubt used to pondering classic conundrums like "if a tree falls in a forest and there's nobody there how do we know if it makes a sound?"

Perhaps they would like to consider "if an arms dump is covered in concrete and there's no one there to photograph it, how do we know it happened?"

If they come up with a definitive philosophical answer to that one, Northern Ireland's politicians would like to hear it.






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