The IRA leadership has held a secret conference to debate arms decommissioning, the vexed issue which has stalled the Northern Ireland peace process.
Around 60 members of its Army Council, which acts as the ruling body of the paramilitary republican movement, met at an undisclosed venue just over the Border in County Cavan. However, it is unclear if the Provisionals decided to change their hardline stance on decommissioning in a bid to break the deadlock on implementing the Good Friday Agreement. No immediate move has been signalled following the gathering, but full Army Council meetings are very rare and usually coincide with or precede major changes in policy. It is understood that the IRA members who attended the Army Council convention talked about all aspects of the situation in Northern Ireland, including the lack of political progress because of an ongoing dispute over surrender of terrorist weaponry. Mr David Trimble, the Northern Ireland First Minister and leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, is refusing to set up the new power-sharing government at Stormont or cross-border bodies until the IRA starts disarming. The entire peace process is bogged down over that issue. The IRA insisted in April that it will not give up any of its fearsome arsenal of guns, ammunition and explosives, and has not changed its position since. Sinn Fein spokesmen refuse to countenance what most republicans believe would constitute ”surrender”. That opposition was reinforced in September in the Sinn Fein newspaper Republican News. Mr Trimble, who is in the United States to receive a peace prize, displayed a rare optimism yesterday when he declared that decommissioning was possible by early next year. But he did not explain how this might come about. The First Minister also told American journalists he was confident that legislative powers could be devolved to the new Stormont Assembly as planned by next spring. But Mr Trimble warned nationalists that there could be disastrous consequences if they did not reduce their demands on cross-border bodies. Unionists want to see fewer bodies, and with fewer powers, than Nationalists such as the SDLP and Sinn Fein. Unionists and nationalists are at loggerheads over the related issues of creating the power-sharing administration, Ministerial departments and cross-border bodies and paramilitary decommissioning. While Unionists claim the Good Friday Agreement insists political progress depends on willingness to disarm, Nationalists and both the London and Dublin governments dispute this interpretation. The search for a breakthrough in the political process is on hold while the seven leaders of the pro-Agreement political parties in Northern Ireland are in the US to be feted for their part in creating the Good Friday Agreement. All seven leaders will be thanked in Washington by the National Democratic Institute for their efforts. Midway through the celebratory dinner, Mr Trimble and the SDLP leader John Hume will leave to fly to Oslo, where they will jointly receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Dr Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, yesterday urged the political parties to make a bigger effort to break the logjam. She cancelled plans to attend the awards ceremony in America and is now working on proposals which she expects to put to party leaders upon their return from the United States and Oslo later this week. Dr Mowlam remains publicly optimistic that somehow a breakthrough can be found, ideally this side of Christmas. Will exists among political leaders to ensure that happens, she said. However, she added: ”They have got to start making more progress and they have got to start engaging more. We will do everything we can to help but in the end the leaders of the political parties must begin to make progress, if not the momentum will slow down.’