Thu, Oct 23, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Protestants reject IRA's latest offer on disarmament


Two key parties in Northern Ireland's peace process hoped yesterday to turn a breakdown into a breakthrough after the main Protestant party rejected the latest disarmament move by the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

British Prime Minister Tony Blair promised to stay in touch with the parties in hopes of resolving what his official spokesman called a "slightly absurd" situation.

Believing they had a deal to pave the way to restoring a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, the British government on Tuesday announced that elections would be held on Nov. 26. The IRA then announced that, for the third time, it had given up part of its arsenal.

But the choreography broke down when David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, complained that the IRA had barred a "transparent report of major acts of decommissioning."

Instead, John de Chastelain, who is in charge of Northern Ireland's glacial disarmament process, was limited to saying that the IRA gave up a substantial quantity of arms which was "considerably larger" than the previous move in April last year.

"We'll be meeting the unionists today, this issue has to be settled between us," said Mitchel McLaughlin, chairman of Sinn Fein, the political party allied to the IRA.

McLaughlin urged Blair to assure skeptical Protestants that the IRA had "fully and completely complied" with the agreement worked out in months of negotiations.

"If the two governments and the international experts are saying that the IRA are complying, that they have made three significant initiatives in that direction, then there's a basis. Given that we don't exactly trust each other, it certainly is a basis for continuing the process," McLaughlin said in an interview with BBC radio.

Blair's official spokesman said yesterday that "good progress" had been made, noting the IRA's latest disarmament move.

"People do have different concerns. One of the concerns of the republican movement is that it does not want to feel humiliated. We understand their concerns," the spokesman told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Equally we recognize the need for clarity. We do recognize the need for the unionist leadership to explain to its electorate just how much progress has been made in terms they understand."

Blair and Irish Prime Minster Bertie Ahern had flown to Northern Ireland Tuesday, expecting to seal an agreement. But, once again, mutual suspicions had stalled progress.

"Yes, the election's going ahead, but we want it in a positive atmosphere," said Blair, who expressed hope that lower-level negotiations this week in Belfast could solve the problems.

De Chastelain, a retired Canadian general, confirmed that the IRA had allowed him to inventory and "decommission" a cache of automatic rifles, explosives and other weapons Tuesday. But at the IRA's insistence, he gave no details.

Trimble -- whose party is essential in reviving power-sharing -- lambasted the IRA for keeping details maddeningly vague.

"We had made it very clear to the governments and General de Chastelain that what we needed was a transparent report of major acts of decommissioning," said Trimble.

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