By Jack Holland
The IRA’s leadership body, the seven-member Army Council, met in County Meath on Monday as the day of decision on the contentious issue of decommissioning loomed ever nearer. According to usually reliable sources, the meeting was held to assess "the way forward." It came as the British and Irish governments struggled to find a means of dealing with the decommissioning crisis, which has to be resolved by April 2, the first anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement, in order to implement the agreement’s provisions for a power-sharing government with cross-border bodies.
Meanwhile, Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator, warned last week: "The next two weeks will be the most critical in the last 10 years. Many good things can happen — bad things can happen too."
Speaking in New York, McGuinness said, the next two weeks "will decide whether or not the situation will move forward or slide backward to what we had before."
McGuinness accused the Unionist leadership of "turning the peace process into a decommissioning process. . . . It’s time for the leadership of the Unionist Party to get real."
McGuinness is the figure who is thought to represent most clearly the feelings of the IRA’s Army Council. In September 1995, he warned that there was "an ever deepening crisis in the peace process" due to British government demands for decommissioning. Within a few weeks of this statement, the Army Council decided that the IRA cease-fire would end unless the demand were dropped. It wasn’t and the violence was renewed on Feb. 9, 1996.
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When McGuinness was asked at a New York press conference if the situation now was as critical as it was then, he would not be drawn out, saying instead, "We would have to wait and see." He said that Sinn Fein remained "absolutely committed to the peace strategy."
It is believed that at the County Meath meeting on March 22 the IRA leaders also assessed the recent visit to the U.S. of leading Sinn Fein members. Intensive discussions were held in Washington during that visit. They involved the Sinn Fein leaders, the White House, Unionist Party chief David Trimble, and Irish government representatives. It was an attempt to find a compromise between the Unionists demand for a token handing over of weapons and the IRA’s blunt refusal to even consider it as a precondition to Sinn Fein representatives taking their allotted seats in the new Northern Ireland government.
It is thought likely, say these sources, that the IRA and Sinn Fein will agree to a "form of words" that will declare the war to be over and state that IRA weapons are in "deep storage." The IRA will commit itself to the supervised destruction of weapons and explosives only once the agreement has been fully implemented. The republican movement hopes that this will pacify Unionists enough to enable the deadline for the implementation of the agreement to be met next week. The IRA will also demand a date for the disengagement of British forces from Northern Ireland and the disbandment of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
The Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has expressed his optimism that the long-enduring deadlock can be resolved. However, the Unionist Party’s demand for the handing over of some weapons could prove to be an unnegotiable stumbling block.
The IRA offer of a "form of words" will be their "last throw of the dice" to settle the decommissioning issue, according to sources. The prospect of actual decommissioning prior to Sinn Fein taking its seats on the executive is "not even on the radar screen."
In the meantime, security sources in Northern Ireland are expressing concern at the development of the loyalist groups the Red Hand Defenders and the Orange Volunteers. The RHD claimed responsibility for the murder of human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson last week. One source compared both groups — which are made up of renegade members of the bigger loyalist groups — to the Ku Klux Klan.
"These guys are prepared to go into a Catholic church and open fire," said a well-placed source. "They’re extreme anti-Catholic bigots."
In the meantime, former IRA chief of staff Thomas "Slab" Murphy is said to be a focus for those within the IRA who are unhappy with the current peace process. Murphy, from South Armagh, was chief of staff only briefly between 1996 and 1997. South Armagh republicans are more skeptical of the Adams-McGuinness leadership and informed sources suggest that any challenge to the present course the republican movement is taking would come from there. When the last cease-fire ended, in February 1996, Adams was informed only four hours before a huge IRA bomb exploded at Canary Wharf in London. That bombing was an operation organized in South Armagh and carried out from there.