By Jack Holland and Anne Cadwallader
STORMONT — The IRA has stated that it has no intention of returning to a “war footing” and that all its units have been “stood down,” according to reliable sources.
The statement was given to Sen. George Mitchell Tuesday as he attempts to strike a deal between Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionist Party to resolve the “no guns, no government” dispute that has been snarling efforts to implement the Good Friday peace agreement. The statement is one of several documents from the participants in the Mitchell review, which is now in its 10th week.
The statement is believed to say that any IRA decommissioning will be in line with the terms of the agreement, will be voluntary and will occur provided the institutions of the agreement are up and running. It is thought that Mitchell will present this to the Unionists as the best deal they are likely to get and argue that it provides the basis for the long-sought breakthrough, enabling the political institutions, including the power-sharing executive and cross-border bodies, to be formed.
The news broke as Northern Ireland’s political parties were still hunkered down over the Good Friday agreement review. It is thought that the IRA statement commits the organization to a time frame for decommissioning to be worked out in relation to the International Commission on Decommissioning chaired by General John De Chastelain. To win Unionist agreement, it would almost certainly have to offer a tighter time frame than that thought to have been offered last July, which reportedly envisioned a six-week gap between the implementation of the agreement and the beginning of the disarmament process.
Reliable sources had earlier indicated that an accord was close and the gap between the UUP and Sinn Fein had to do with “textual clarity.” That is, whether the words used by the IRA would be sufficient to allow the UUP leader, David Trimble, to go to his party executive with a recommendation that the agreement could now be implemented. The IRA statement would have to spell out what was going to happen.
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Initial reports suggest that the UUP have rejected the IRA initiative.
It had been thought that the UUP would be reluctant to reject a proposal that had Mitchell’s endorsement. Informed observers also think it unlikely that Mitchell would endorse proposals unless he is fairly certain that they will be accepted to all parties.
Tuesday’s developments were in sharp contrast to those of the day before when both Unionists and Sinn Fein leaders had dismissed newspaper reports that the IRA was preparing its rank and file for “tactical decommissioning.”
After feverish speculation that the IRA had made a significant shift in its position on disarming, a Sinn Fein spokesman denied the reports. However, informed observers said Sinn Fein would have been expected to do this, so as not to allow the kind of word spinning and speculation that had made the summer’s negotiations so fraught and which many see as one of the causes of their failure to resolve the dispute.
The Ulster Unionist Party security spokesman, Ken Maginnis, also dismissed the reports, saying his intelligence information made no such suggestion. “Sinn Fein/IRA have yet to cross that Rubicon and join democratic politics,” he said.
Trimble also advised people “not to get too excited” about the reports. “If the paramilitaries are unable to move at the moment, then we are prepared to be patient to see if there are ways of helping them,” he said.
“But they have to move. If they do not change, we do not have the better future we all hope for. We will not have that peaceful, democratic future while private armies continue to operate.”
On Monday morning, before the party publicly denied the reports of IRA movement, Sinn FTin’s chief whip, Alex Maskey, refused to specifically comment on talk of disarmament, except to say there had been a “lot of speculation in recent days, most of it inaccurate.”
He said the peace process was at a “defining moment” and Sinn FTin thought there was a slim chance of progress, but was determined to do all it could to make it work. “We are seeking to end this crisis by the establishment of the political institutions,” he said.
Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein said that decommissioning would be a matter for the armed groups. McGuinness said that he hoped the positive atmosphere during the Mitchell review in the last few weeks could continue and that a breakthrough could be achieved.
At the SDLP annual conference last weekend, the party leader, John Hume, moved to distance his party from unionist demands that the parties agree to move forward together, minus Sinn Fein, if the decommissioning blockage is not resolved.
Hume said his party believed in inclusivity and that it had not, and would not, exclude any party that had a mandate and that was exclusively wedded to democratic and political means.
Hume said the North’s politicians had never been closer to resolving the conflict. He said he believed Senator George Mitchell’s review would result “in agreement on how to proceed.”
The SDLP leader, who is recovering after stomach surgery, was applauded warmly as he arrived to address the packed conference. He said the issue of paramilitary disarmament had been given far too much significance.
British Northern Secretary Peter Mandelson, in the first address made by a secretary of state to an SDLP conference, said: “This is a crucial point in Northern Ireland’s history. A few more days is a small price to pay. So give the politicians time. They know what is at stake.”
He insisted any agreement must be reached by local people alone, and that he was encouraged by how well republicans and unionist politicians were getting on in recent weeks.
“I am not in the business of forcing decisions over local people’s heads. I cannot impose a solution on Northern Ireland. I have no cards up my sleeve. There are no smoke and mirrors at my disposal,” he said.