Impasse On Decommissioning


Sir, - While the March 10th deadline approaches for the setting up of the new executive in Northern Ireland, I cannot be alone in wondering how long the British government is prepared to wait while David Trimble re-interprets the section on decommissioning in the Good Friday Agreement to bolster hardline unionist intransigence.

Why is he not also addressing the issue consistently ignored by the British media: the thousands of licensed weapons in the homes and gun clubs of his own community? As Albert Reynolds recently remarked on Radio 4, "the North is awash with weapons."

It is sheer hypocrisy to demand the decommissioning of IRA weapons when, according to RUC figures for 1997, there are 138,727 legally held guns in circulation in that province - the majority in Unionist cupboards - for which 83,500 firearms certificates have been issued, many for several guns held by one person.

Equally worrying was Dr Mowlam's written reply to a parliamentary question put last year by Jim Murphy, MP for Eastwood, when the 1998 Review of Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 came under parliamentary scrutiny after hand-guns were banned in Britain following the Dunblane massacre.

Mo Mowlam explained in her reply: "After much thought, I am not persuaded of the need to prohibit the possession and use of target hand-guns in Northern Ireland. I realise that my decision may disappoint some people who feel strongly, as I do, about firearms control and safeguarding the public."

This was an extraordinary decision for a politician as skilled as Dr Mowlam and explicable only in terms of the power still wielded behind the scenes by the Orange Order. It cannot surely have been on the advice of Sir Ronnie Flanagan? As the backdrop to the present impasse on decommissioning, it reveals the insidious double standards still in place despite the fragile new order.

If there is to be any future agreement on decommissioning, surely common sense dictates that the 12,771 legally held handguns in Northern Ireland should be the first weapons to be decommissioned to comply with the legislation applicable to the rest of the UK. Perhaps then the owners of the 111,014 shotguns and airguns, the 13,736 small bore rifles, the 326 full-bore rifles and the 880 "miscellaneous" weapons could be induced to surrender them.

I suggest as a matter of urgency that Mo Mowlam's office meet with the gun clubs of the Orange Order, the Black Preceptory and the Apprentice Boys to put these points so as to gain at least some credibility as a persuader.

It is illogical to require Irish republicans to hand over their weapons while their unionist neighbours a few streets across town are permitted to retain their own massive private licensed armouries, not to mention the thousands of unlicensed weapons in the hands of Protestant paramilitaries. - Yours, etc., Moya St Leger,

Queen's Club Gardens, London W14.