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Last Updated: Friday, 2 September 2005, 16:59 GMT 17:59 UK
DUP witness 'waits in the wings'
By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain is due back from holiday in the first week of September.

As soon as he returns, he will plunge into meetings with the local parties on the prospects for restoring devolution. However, the DUP have promised that they won't be joining the queue.

NI secretary Peter Hain
Peter Hain is to begin meetings on prospects for restoring devolution

The boycott of the September talks is their tit-for-tat response to the series of announcements on dismantling border towers and disbanding the Royal Irish Regiment which followed the IRA statement at the start of August.

But how uninterested are the DUP? On the face of it, they would appear to want nothing to do with any unilateral IRA disarmament over the next few weeks.

In early August, DUP leader Ian Paisley referred dismissively to "the so-called dumping of IRA arms".

He claimed this would be far from crystal clear as only the IRA would "control any more faked decommissionings and the supposedly independent observers will be appointed by them alone with limited powers set by IRA/Sinn Fein".

Under such circumstances, one might assume that the DUP would instruct any Protestant clergyman who enjoys their confidence to stay away from such a republican stunt.

However, there have been indications that even though the DUP would prefer disarmament on camera, it would not block the involvement of a witness acceptable to the party.

Back in December, one clergyman who enjoyed the party's backing was the former Presbyterian moderator, the Reverend David McGaughey.

A former police reservist, and a strong anti-agreement unionist, he is generally considered on the right wing of the Church when it comes to both politics and theology.

Just before he became moderator, he ruffled some feathers by declining to take part in ecumenical services. From a DUP/Free Presbyterian view, he would tick a lot of boxes.

arms haul
Decommissioning is expected to happen soon

Sinn Fein say that if the DUP wants Mr McGaughey as a witness, then Ian Paisley should simply fix a meeting with Gerry Adams.

Republicans know full well that is not going to happen, so maybe it should be taken as an indication that the former moderator is out of the frame.

Certainly, he had not been approached by the start of September. The IRA may take the view that the DUP missed its chance in December.

However, if republicans pick a pro-peace process, Protestant clergyman, that witness may have a harder job convincing the broad unionist community of the magnitude of any IRA action than would someone with Mr McGaughey's credentials.

What is interesting about the DUP's abiding interest is that it indicates that, behind the scenes, they may not be as negative about the IRA's initiative as they sometimes appear on the surface.

On the Catholic side, less is hanging on who the clergyman should be.

General John de Chastelain
General John de Chastelain has returned to Northern Ireland

The latest indications are that the witness could be someone like Father Alex Reid, who has played a key, behind-the-scenes role for years, rather than a clergyman who might be seen as a representative of the church hierarchy.

Whoever is there to witness the decommissioning, it seems no one will be able to bring along a camera.

The Finnish brigadier, Tauno Nieminen, was mentioned in December as a keen amateur photographer who could record the moment the IRA went out of business for both Paisley and posterity.

The brigadier has been re-appointed to General John de Chastelain's team, but it is understood that he will be kept busy verifying any disarmament, not capturing it on camera.

So the IRA's actions will have to be taken on trust, which is where the credibility and communication skills of any witnesses could prove vital.



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