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Friday, 3 December, 1999, 19:11 GMT
The general who likes to destroy weapons
Gen de Chastelain (right) with George Mitchell

By Ireland Correspondent David Eades

It is rare in any country, any society, for a foreigner who is hardly ever seen in public to be the centre of everyone's attention.

But General John de Chastelain is no ordinary foreigner and Northern Ireland is no ordinary society.

The Search for Peace
And from now on, the man who heads the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, becomes the pivotal figure in assessing the chances of paramilitary violence departing this province once and for all.

Now that the IRA has appointed a representative to enter into discussions with the General, he can embark on the single most significant part of his brief - to ascertain, and ultimately to verify, the extent to which the IRA is prepared to give up its guns.

Ceremonially sliced up

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The decommissioning of weapons has already happened once. The loyalist paramilitary group, the LVF, handed in some guns to General John de Chastelain's decommissioning body and they were ceremonially sliced into pieces by an industrial circular saw.

The general was there to verify the work had been done. To him, decommissioning equals destruction.

But that sort of stage-managed performance does not sound like the IRA's idea of a good deal.

First things first, then. General de Chastelain's initial requirement is for a rundown of what the IRA actually has in its control - how much armoury, what sort of weapons, where and when would they be "decommissioned"?

Decommissioning or disarmament?

Decommissioned weapons ceremonially sawn up
On top of that, who would destroy all this? Would the IRA be master of its own ammunition to the end, or simply direct the decommissioning body to the appropriate site?

The problem is the IRA sees decommissioning as surrender. It prefers to talk about disarmament, something to be done voluntarily if at all - and certainly not by somebody else.

So how might they decommission - or disarm?

There is the Big Bang theory - a monumental display of intent, maybe even as the millennium arrives. The media might like it as an idea, but it is as remote and fanciful as any on offer.

Concreting over an arms dump might be more realistic. It would put guns out of commission, or "beyond use", the language used by the parties earlier this year.

But that falls short of the General's preference for destruction and the unionists' need for more than decommissioning by rust.

So if it has to be destruction, maybe the answer lies in partial destruction. Getting rid of offensive weaponry, for example, like semtex, but keeping hold of defensive arms handguns and the like.

Sticking to the agreement

One option is to destroy offensive weaponry but keep defensive arms
These are some of the ideas floating in the December breeze. It is likely the General has a clear idea as to how he sees it working, but only once he develops an understanding with the IRA's interlocutor can he be confident of the outcome.

He is still confident that total decommissioning by May 2000 - as specified in the Good Friday Agreement - remains technically possible, provided it begins in the next few weeks.

Until now he has been unable to express the same confidence that it will actually happen.

Even at this stage his suspicions are probably that weapons decommissioning will not be completed by next May.

But provided a real start is made - and is seen to be continuing, that need not affect the rest of the peace process.

There are other factors which could influence events. The loyalist force, the UFF, has yet to appoint a representative. A decision to do so is expected, and would help oil the wheels.

The most critical phase

The republican clamour for the British Government to reduce its forces in Northern Ireland could also be given a hearing.

There are no plans for reducing the 15,000-strong force at this point, but gestures in these sensitive times could make a real difference.

The IRA itself has never said never to decommissioning but nor has it given any hint that such a move is imminent.

And it will not do so until it sees the Agreement, and the institutions republicans most cherish, up and running and working to their benefit.

Well, they are now up and running and it need not take much longer to discover if they like what they see.

If they do, General de Chastelain's four-year commitment to peace in Northern Ireland will enter its most critical and most public phase.

We may not see him, we may not hear him, but his profile in the province and beyond will surely never be higher
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See also:
01 Dec 99 |  Northern Ireland
Decommissioning: The paramilitary figures
02 Dec 99 |  Northern Ireland
IRA appoints arms go-between
02 Dec 99 |  Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland makes history
01 Dec 99 |  Northern Ireland
Countdown to decommissioning move
19 Nov 99 |  Northern Ireland
UDP meets de Chastelain
21 Oct 99 |  Northern Ireland
Arms deadline will be met - de Chastelain
02 Dec 99 |  Northern Ireland
Picture gallery: New hope for Northern Ireland
02 Dec 99 |  Northern Ireland
Getting down to business Belfast-style

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