Republicans deny IRA is considering handover


Republican sources have strongly denied that the IRA leadership is considering the decommissioning of weapons in order to facilitate Sinn Fein's entry into an Assembly executive.

The sources yesterday were not prepared to confirm or deny reports that an IRA convention met at the weekend, but they firmly rejected suggestions that the organisation was likely to engage in even a partial handover or destruction of arms or explosives.

According to security and other sources the IRA leadership did meet at the weekend, possibly at a location just south of the Border, to discuss current political developments including the deadlock over decommissioning.

The convention, according to the sources, finally took place over two days at the weekend, reportedly in Co Cavan.

While the issue of decommissioning remains problematic, senior Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and SDLP politicians have expressed their conviction that the dispute over North-South implementation bodies can be resolved before Christmas.

In an article in today's Irish Times, the deputy UUP leader, Mr John Taylor, says there is "no crisis at Stormont" and that the issue of North-South bodies, the number of ministerial departments, and the Strand 3 British-Irish council can be resolved by Christmas.

"If we all pause before speaking it should be possible to configure Strands 1, 2 and 3 before Christmas, thereby meeting the targeted deadline of devolution in the first quarter of 1999 - if, and it is an important if, the IRA has begun decommissioning," he says.

Mr Sean Farren, a senior SDLP Assembly member, also said last night that agreement was possible. "Nothing of what is being proposed departs from either the spirit or letter of the agreement," he said.

Mr Taylor and Mr Farren made their comments as the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, and the British Prime Minister, Mr Blair, stepped up pressure to overcome the obstacles. They held a 15-minute telephone conversation yesterday about the current problems, and plan to contact the various parties in an effort to achieve movement before Christmas. Before flying to the US yesterday, the Sinn Fein president, Mr Gerry Adams, spoke by telephone with Mr Blair where he urged him to help "conclude the deal" before the Christmas break.

He said he expects that Sinn Fein's main negotiator, Mr Martin McGuinness, will lead a party delegation to Downing Street later this week "in a bid to accelerate progress".

The Northern Secretary, Dr Mo Mowlam, said yesterday that the peace process was not in trouble but that there must be greater efforts from Northern leaders to break the deadlock.

"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 more progress. "If not the momentum will slow down," she warned.

A composite document setting out the key areas of agreement and disagreement between the SDLP and the UUP is due to be presented to the parties this week.

"We and the Irish decided there is much that can be done this week and we are working with officials to see what we can do to put in place the bits for when the politicians return next week," said Dr Mowlam.

Meanwhile, the Deputy First Minister, Mr Seamus Mallon, is to hold further discussions with Mr Ahern in Dublin today and Mr Taylor will meet Mr Blair in London, also today.