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Last Updated: Monday, 26 September 2005, 18:28 GMT 19:28 UK
IRA arms: what next for NI politics?
By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

Before analysing the contrasting arguments over the latest tranche of IRA decommissioning, it's worth taking a step backwards.

Big gun
General de Chastelain has gone further than on previous occasions
It's not so long since the IRA's apparently unbending line was "not a bullet, not an ounce" of Semtex.

Although the IRA may have been dragged kicking and screaming towards this fourth act of disarmament, the fact that apparently vast quantities of weaponry have been destroyed by international experts working hour after hour is something which, not so long ago, would have been quite unbelievable.

Both in content and presentation, the latest news conference by Canadian General John de Chastelain and his colleagues was far more impressive than his ill-fated appearance back in October 2003.

The forthright comments by former Methodist President Harold Good should in particular help convince many people in Northern Ireland that, even though there is no visual evidence, something momentous did indeed happen last week.

Even the DUP deputy leader, Peter Robinson, conceded that the IRA has carried out a more substantial act of disarmament than ever before.

The general says that what he has destroyed is consistent with official security force estimates north and south of the border

However, the DUP has not got what it wanted in terms of photographs, a precise inventory or its preferred Protestant witness, the former Presbyterian moderator David McGaughey.

The party will highlight those areas as it continues to resist pressure from London and Dublin for it to enter direct dialogue with Sinn Fein.

The UUP has been more welcoming. But it too has criticised the lack of specific detail provided by the general.

In talking of machine-guns, surface-to-air missiles, handguns, flamethrowers, rocket propelled grenades and so on, the general has gone further than on previous occasions.

But he has stuck to his previous brief, which was to provide a full inventory to the two governments only when his mandate is over: that is, after loyalist guns have been put out of circulation.

Although the UVF has been conducting an internal consultation about the IRA's initiative, there is still no sign of any of the main loyalist paramilitary groups following the IRA's example.

More unionists can be expected to join UUP leader Sir Reg Empey in demanding that the governments should publish their official estimates
Mainstream unionists have said the loyalists should follow suit, but none has yet pushed this line with any great degree of vehemence.

The IRA's insistence on confidentiality has continued to make General de Chastelain's task difficult. But it's the British and Irish governments own secrecy which has further complicated his latest contribution.

The general says that what he has destroyed is consistent with official security force estimates north and south of the border.

However, he would not reveal exactly what those estimates are.

There are educated guesses about 1,100 assault rifles and two tonnes of Semtex, but more unionists can be expected to join UUP leader Sir Reg Empey in demanding that the governments should publish their official estimates.

Over the next three months, the DUP is likely to hold its ground, but the pressure upon it will grow in the new year if and when the four-strong Independent Monitoring Commission gives the IRA a clean bill of health, confirming that IRA members have been inactive.

Then it will become clear whether the DUP are just playing hard to get or if they simply cannot bring themselves to share power with Sinn Fein.


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See an IRA arms cache




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