By Jack Holland
In an effort to stave off a full-scale meltdown in the peace process, a proposal has emerged offering a decommissioning timetable with a fixed date for the beginning of the process, in the hope that it will be enough to convince Unionists not to abandon the new power-sharing government, reliable sources have indicated.
The report of a possible breakthrough came as the British government rushed legislation needed to suspend the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive through the House of Commons. The legislation would take effect Friday, becoming law the day before the meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council, where the UUP leader, David Trimble, is expected to offer his resignation if decommissioning has not begun.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said in London on Tuesday that he thought a deal was still possible.
The proposal would form the basis of a new report from the International Body on Decommissioning, chaired by General John de Chastelain, which would declare that the IRA has agreed on the modalities of decommissioning, including a commitment to a date when the process would begin.
The date mentioned was May 22, the deadline in the Good Friday agreement for the completion of paramilitary disarmament. However, the reported proposal envisages the timetable for decommissioning being extended. Republicans argue that their position has always been that decommissioning would only take place when the institutions of government, including its cross-border bodies, were "up and running," and since implementation has been delayed for over a year, the movement requires the extra time to meet its commitment.
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A high-ranking Unionist source confirmed that such a proposal was "in the air." But he said that without "product," it was mere "mood music" and would not be enough to satisfy his party’s 860-member council.
However, sources say that Trimble would come under tremendous pressure from Britain to accept such a proposal. One said that the odds were "60-40" that it would be accepted.
"People don’t know how close agreement [on decommissioning] is," he said.
Others point to the IRA statement of Saturday, Feb. 5. In it, the IRA said: "The issue of arms needs to be dealt with in an acceptable way and is a necessary objective of a genuine peace process . . . we support efforts to secure the resolution of the arms issue." Observers see this as an indication that the IRA has accepted decommissioning in principle and is just a "short step away" from agreeing to an actual timetable.
However, republican sources remain skeptical.
"When feelers were put out for some decommissioning, Adams received a ferocious ‘no,’ " said one republican veteran from County Tyrone. But another admitted that there were "desperate efforts behind the scenes to save Adams."
Also, there are fears that even if this or something like it wins Unionist support, the party will pressure Trimble into making the Patten police reforms an issue and demand that the British government scrap the suggested changes to the RUC — which include a renaming of the force — in return for its continued support of participation in the power-sharing government. On Monday at a meeting of the party’s executive to discuss the reforms, Trimble came in for heavy criticism. Demonstrators denounced him as a traitor for not opposing the reforms strongly enough. If such a precondition arose it would certainly doom any chance of the situation being salvaged.
Trimble’s post-dated letter of resignation, due to have taken effect on Feb. 4, is still in a locked safe at UUP headquarters in Belfast. The man to whom it is addressed, party chairman Sir Josias Cunningham, says he is still "consulting with colleagues."
It’s not thought the letter will be activated, however, provided the British government suspends the Assembly and Executive before the UUP’s meeting on Saturday. This is the reconvened session of the November meeting that conditionally validated the UUP taking part in an Executive with two Sinn Fein ministers.
As last week progressed, Adams looked increasingly tired and even said on Sunday night that he was fed up with the "ganging up" against his party. He said the British government should look for another "scapegoat."
It is believed, however, that all Adams’s efforts ever had a chance of accomplishing was a clearer statement from the IRA on its commitment to future decommissioning.
Efforts by the Irish government to get the legislation for suspension delayed were partially successful at the end of last week. Dublin believed that, if it had enough time, it could find a way through the impasse and it persuaded London to allow a few days’ grace to continue mediating between republicans and unionists.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern told the Dail, however, that if there was no "clarity" on the decommissioning issue, there were no alternatives to suspending the Assembly and Executive. He said he thought "product" (actual weapons) was not deliverable.
Ahern also said he had made it clear in his meetings with Sinn Féin last Wednesday that "clarity" is what the Irish government and the Dáil wanted.
Partially as a result of these efforts, the IRA issued its statement on Saturday, saying that it believed the crisis could be averted, that the issue of arms can be resolved and that the peace process is under no threat from the IRA.
"We have never entered into any agreement or undertaking or understanding at any time whatsoever on any aspect of decommissioning," it said. "We have not broken any commitment or betrayed anyone."
Repeatedly through the week, the British prime minister, Tony Blair, said the weapons issue had to be confronted. "If we let this chance for peace go, if we let fall from our fingers the very thing we had grasped so firmly, then we will have failed the people we serve and that would be the biggest betrayal of all," he said.
On Monday, the SDLP’s Hume urged the IRA to hand over some arms or explosives now as a "gesture" to prevent either the British government or the Ulster Unionists from suspending or destroying the new institutions.
— Anne Cadwallader contributed to this story