By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Republican sources have categorically denied reports that the IRA held a full Army Convention last weekend to discuss the state of its cease-fire and potentially pave the way for decommissioning some of its weapons.
For the third week running, newspaper reports claimed republicans were gathering in secret, somewhere in the Republic, to decide on giving more flexibility to Sinn Fein leaders over disarming in order to break the impasse in the peace process.
Following reports that first appeared in the Irish Echo newspaper on Nov. 4, and then in the Sunday Independent and Sunday Times, the most recent Sunday Tribune claimed, under the front page headline "Secret IRA meeting to debate weapons," that the meeting was taking place as it went to press.
The newspaper gave no evidence for its claim, neither from republican nor security sources. The paper said merely that it had "learned" about the meeting and that its existence "may" have been the explanation for favorable comments from London on Sinn Fein’s role in recent weeks.
Republican sources, however, told the Echo that such reports merely fueled British-inspired media propaganda that was intended to bring pressure on the IRA to alter its position against decommissioning.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
They denied the reports in detail, leaving no room for ambiguity in the republican approach to decommissioning, nor in their contention that no "Army Convention" had met, nor is intending to meet, to change that position.
Moreover, they said that the IRA’s review of its cease-fire was a continuing procedure of consultations and assessment with no need or requirement for a convention.
UUP demands on Patten
Meanwhile, the Ulster Unionists are demanding a formal statement from the Patten Commission on the future of the RUC to deny reports that the force is to be disbanded. The UUP is warning the Good Friday peace agreement could "collapse" if the reports are true.
There are now suspicions in nationalist quarters of a full-scale and orchestrated attempt to force the Commission, nearly a year in advance of its report, to show its hand and rule out disbanding the RUC.
The UUP has demanded a statement, despite Patten’s comprehensive rubbishing of the reports. Unionists say the pressures on them are unbearable as a result of the reports, which were carried last week in the Irish Times.
Patten angrily said the reports were "fiction," but they nevertheless caused consternation in unionist ranks as they came within 24 hours of a plea from the chairman of the Police Federation, Les Rodgers, for no "trade-off" between disbanding the RUC and IRA decommissioning.
Patten, former chairman of the British Conservatives and last governor of Hong Kong, pointed out the commission has still not heard submissions from the SDLP or Sinn Fein and has planned more than 30 public meetings around the North.
Sinn Fein criticized Rodgers’s comments and claimed the two reports were timed to take place at the same time, showing unionists shifting the focus from decommissioning, which had stymied the formation of the Executive, to other parts of the Good Friday peace agreement with which they disagreed.
But further pressure for wholesale reform of the RUC, if not its complete disbandment, came in a UN Committee last Wednesday which condemned the use of plastic bullets, RUC interrogation centers and the continuing use of emergency laws.
In response, the Committee on the Administration of Justice said the British government would rank alongside Turkey and Serbia in human rights terms if it did not implement the UN report. No British minister has yet responded to the UN Committee on the Prevention of Torture and Degrading Treatment report.
In the absence of any British government defense of its human rights record, the Ulster Unionist Party said if there was no terrorist threat there would be no need for interrogation centers or plastic bullets.
But the CAJ said upholding human rights and abiding by its international obligations should be a central plank of any government’s policy, even more so one involved in civil conflict.
In another development, the Loyalist Volunteer Force said last Thursday that it won’t begin decommissioning right away. The group said, through an intermediary, that it was angry at comments made by UUP security spokesman Ken Maginnis .
The LVF cease-fire was acknowledged as genuine last week by the British government. It then said through a linkman, former loyalist paramilitary turned born-again Christian, Pastor Kenny McClinton, that it would begin decommissioning virtually immediately.
But derogatory comments from Maginnis in the House of Commons have apparently offended the LVF and it now says its decommissioning won’t begin straight-away after all.
McClinton said the group was aware that a handover of weapons from the LVF would benefit the Ulster Unionists because of the resulting pressure on the IRA, and it wasn’t of a mind to help the UUP after Maginnis’s comments.
In the continuing search for those responsible for the Omagh bombing, the RUC officer leading the hunt has appealed for more help from the public. Det. Chief Supt. Eric Anderson broke down as he made the appeal.
Progress had been made, he said. Eleven people had questioned in the North and 31 in the Republic. Just because they had been released without charge did not necessarily mean they had been cleared of all involvement.
Anderson said the gang involved had links in Counties Monaghan, Armagh and Louth. Asked if those who had planted the bomb came from Omagh, he would only say he believed they knew exactly what they were doing in placing a bomb in a busy town center.