Blair and Ahern to decide on statement by IRA


The Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, and the British Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, will assess whether they should return to Hillsborough to publish their blueprint for restoring devolution on the basis of the IRA statement issued last night.

The two governments were studying the statement to determine if it met their requirement that the IRA's war is effectively over, and that it is backing up this commitment by a major act of decommissioning.

"You can take it that if they are coming the deal is on," said a well-placed political source. Conversely, if the two leaders fail to make the journey they will have judged that this new statement is not sufficient to push the political process forward, sources added.

The IRA, with a holding statement issued last night, and with the additional statement of how it would respond to publication of the blueprint has created the potential for a dramatic breakthrough.

But after the controversy and disappointment caused by how the IRA originally planned to respond to the blueprint last week, Mr Ahern and Mr Blair were exercising considerable caution last night about this new statement.

"We will consider the statement very carefully. We will take our time because this deserves very careful attention," said a British government source. Irish sources made similar comments.

Their hesitation may also be based on the necessity to determine if this IRA text would be sufficient to persuade UUP leader Mr David Trimble to urge his ruling Ulster Unionist Council to also endorse the blueprint. This in turn would trigger the Assembly election campaign leading to the May 29th poll.

The IRA will only issue this unpublished statement, which was presented to the governments around 8 p.m. last night, if Mr Ahern and Mr Blair publish their proposals for reinstating the Executive and Assembly.

But in another statement, which the IRA publicly released at the same time last night, the IRA hinted that its response would detail its future intentions and also that it would involve a third act of decommissioning. The IRA said that it was committed to see the peace process succeed. And in wording, which suggested - without actually specifying - that it was prepared to carry out further decommissioning and possibly end paramilitary activity it added: "In this context we decided to give our attitude [to the governments] on:

• "The current disposition of Óglaigh na hÉireann and the status of our cessation.

• "Our future intentions.

• "Our attitude to a re-engagement with the IICD [the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning] and engagement in a process of putting arms beyond use.

• "A third act of putting arms beyond use to be verified under the agreed scheme."

At the very least these developments - which came after a frantic weekend of talks and contacts involving republicans, Mr Ahern and Mr Blair, as well as President Bush's specialist on Ireland, Mr Richard Haass - have created the possibility of major movement today.

Mr Ahern was in direct contact with the Sinn Féin leaders Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness through yesterday, after holding talks with them in Dublin on Saturday. Mr Blair was also central to what was unfolding. Mr Haass stayed in Belfast through the weekend.

Mark Hennessy Political Correspondent writes: The Taoiseach discussed by telephone the IRA text with Mr Blair last night, shortly after it was received by Irish officials at 8 p.m. Mr Ahern, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Cowen, and leading officials, including the Secretary General of the Department, Mr Dermot Gallagher will meet again early today.

The Government had insisted from early afternoon yesterday that it would consider the weekend's events early today: "The decision about Hillsborough has not been made," one source told The Irish Times.

On Saturday, Mr Ahern bluntly told Sinn Féin's Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness that he would not publish the Irish and British government's joint declaration unless the IRA offered greater clarity. Following the meeting, Mr McGuinness said it was "unthinkable" that the two governments would not publish their declaration, but he indicated that the IRA would respond publicly if the governments did so.

The IRA statement proposed during last week's talks was passed on verbally by Mr Adams.