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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 September 2005, 11:23 GMT 12:23 UK
NI peace: Stumbling blocks remain
IRA arms have been "put beyond use", according to the international body responsible for overseeing paramilitary decommissioning in Northern Ireland. But unlike in previous episodes of the peace process, few believe that there will be a swift return to power-sharing institutions. So what are the key stumbling blocks?

CONFIDENCE AND TRUST

Without a doubt, the most important issue in the Northern Ireland peace process has always been trust.

And for some years, it's not been there between unionist parties and Sinn Fein. Republicans have presented the IRA's dumping of arms as an unprecedented effort to build confidence - but the fissures of distrust run deep.

Trust collapsed between unionists and republicans over a number of incidents in the past few years, notably the arrest of three Irishmen in Colombia suspected of training guerrillas, allegations of spying at Stormont, continued low-level paramilitary activities and a lack of clarity over the earlier decommissioning moves.

The situation worsened with the IRA's implication in the December 2004 raid on the Northern Bank in Belfast, a robbery the bank says netted about 26m.

REPUBLICAN PARAMILITARIES

There are no signs that the IRA's decision to dump arms has caused a new split. But many opposed to the IRA believe that the organisation remains a substantial paramilitary force that and has shown no signs of withering away.

For instance, they point to the republican movement's ability to marshal protests, claiming that IRA men dictate whether or not protests turn to violent clashes (similar marshalling goes on among loyalist paramilitaries).

Secondly, IRA members have been accused of taking the law into their own hands, through so-called punishment beatings, or pursuing personal vendettas, such as the killing of Belfast man Robert McCartney.

His death led to wide-spread criticism of the republican movement and claims that it was not prepared to assist the police investigation. The family say they have faced continued intimidation.

The Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), a body set up to give an assessment of paramilitaries, is expected to report in January on whether the IRA has delivered on its promises.

LOYALIST PARAMILITARIES

The Independent Monitoring Commission has blamed the Ulster Volunteer Force for five murders and 15 attempted murders during its continuing feud with the Loyalist Volunteer Force. It believes the UVF has decided now is the time to "finish off" its rivals.

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain has declared the UVF ceasefire over, although this was a largely symbolic announcement.

Loyalist paramilitaries have also been blamed for the sudden and extremely violent protests in parts of Northern Ireland earlier in September over the disputed Whiterock Orange Order parade.

In short, none of the loyalist paramilitary groups look likely to begin decommissioning weapons anytime soon.

POLICING

The one major element of the Good Friday Agreement that Sinn Fein has not signed up to at present is policing: the party says Catholics should not join the reformed Police Service of Northern Ireland.

In contrast, the nationalist SDLP supports the new police service and has taken its seats on the Policing Board. Sinn Fein wants security and policing powers devolved to Belfast, saying these must be in local hands to secure the confidence of its community.

Many unionists fear this could lead to a senior republican like Martin McGuinness becoming justice minister in the power-sharing executive.

The government has indicated it will devolve these powers when the circumstances are right - and theoretically IRA decommissioning makes this more likely that it was before. But ministers are also adamant that they will not allow convicted paramilitaries to join the police force.

SECTARIANISM AND INSTABILITY

While the political process has plodded and stuttered since the Good Friday Agreement, sectarianism remains a serious issue in Northern Ireland. Many experts believe that sectarianism has increased in some areas since 1998, particularly interface areas.

While the largest flashpoint of the Drumcree Parade has faded from public view, there is a concern that the political instability, coupled with a sense of alienation among some very poor Protestant areas of Belfast, is leading to an upsurge in tensions.

This sectarianism raises questions about whether or not enough is being done to bring divided communities together.

REMOVING THE GUN

Can the gun genuinely be taken out of Irish politics? Many sceptics believe that paramilitary culture is embedded in an ages old conflict.

Optimists say that it is possible to leave guns behind - they point to the fact that the original IRA gave up its guns after the creation of the Republic of Ireland.

Other nations have undergone similar processes and the balance, says Gen John de Chastelain, is in dealing with the guns while not allowing them to become a defining issue, or leaving it too late to deal with them.

He has pointed to the South African experience. The politics was a success - but many guns ended up in the hands of criminals before they could be collected up and destroyed. Many people fear a similar problem already exists in Northern Ireland.

ASSEMBLY REFORM

During the short periods that the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive sat, a healthy debate developed over whether they were effective bodies.

Some of the parties have pushed for its internal workings to be changed to make it easier to take decisions or to give it more powers.

Others, particularly the small Alliance Party, believe that some the arrangements institutionalise sectarianism. Some of these issues have been on the table in previous multi-party talks and may return again if the parties inch towards an agreement.




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Hear General John de Chastelain speak to the press




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