By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Speculation is growing that the IRA could be poised to put a second quantity of its weapons “beyond use” in another disarmament move, despite concerns expressed by its rank-and-file at last year’s groundbreaking first move.
The outgoing police chief constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, said Monday that another decommissioning act is “a real possibility” and he “hopes it will be imminent.”
An IRA move on decommissioning would refocus attention on the loyalist paramilitaries who have yet to decommission. It would also do Sinn Fein no harm in the run-up to the anticipated May election south of the border.
The Canadian army genera, who chairs the international body on decommissioning, John de Chastelain, met fellow commissioner Andrew Sens in Dublin on Monday to discuss developments. A spokesman for the commission would not comment on whether this signified a move by the IRA to take place within days.
Just hours after Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness met the British prime minister, Tony Blair, in London, Flanagan, who retires at the weekend from his post in Northern Ireland, said he very much hoped that a move on weapons was “imminent.”
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As he prepared for one of his last meetings with the British Northern Ireland secretary, John Reid, at Stormont, Flanagan added: “Indeed I believe that is a real possibility. If it happens, I think it would be yet another positive step forward and we are continuing to make positive progress.
“I think that is likely to happen and it would be yet another step along the road to normality. That is a road that we all want to tread of course and the Police Service of Northern Ireland will continue to do its very best to keep taking us on that road.”
Earlier, at Downing Street, Adams confirmed that his talks with Tony Blair had focused on the issue of the powers of the Police Board and what would be required if Sinn Fein is to endorse it.
The talks also focussed on the so-called “On the Run” fugitives who cannot return to the North. The British government has pledged to remove the anomaly, which means that those imprisoned can return, while those under suspicion only cannot.
A Sinn Fein spokesman said the party was satisfied that the British would move to address the issue, although not within the original time frame promised. It would enable about 30 republicans to return to Northern Ireland without fear of prosecution.
That could be a crucial factor in any move by the IRA to carry out a second act of decommissioning. Unionists have joined forces with the British Conservative Party to oppose any plan by the government to give fugitives a limited amnesty.