Blair seeks way to reveal details of IRA weapons

Rosie Cowan and Michael White
Thursday October 23, 2003
The Guardian

Tony Blair was desperately seeking a way to reveal details of weapons destroyed by the IRA, as he battled to overcome the deadlock threatening the Northern Ireland peace process yesterday.

The deal to restore devolution at Stormont collapsed on Tuesday when David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, rejected a return to power-sharing with Sinn Fein because he was not given an inventory of the arms decommissioned.

The independent disarmament chief, General John de Chastelain, confirmed that a "considerably larger" amount of guns, bombs and bullets had been destroyed than in either of the previous two acts.

But unionists were dismayed at the general's tight definition of the confidentiality agreement between himself and the Provisionals, despite last minute arm-twisting by Mr Blair and Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, who yesterday admitted that he had had serious misgivings.

However, Mr Blair said yesterday he was "working hard to find a way to try and disclose" more facts. He felt the public would be satisfied if they knew what the two premiers knew.

"We are not at liberty to disclose that information, but we are working hard to find a way to try and disclose it," he told the Commons.

The prime minister could now try to press republicans to either supply more details themselves or allow General de Chastelain to do so. Or he might give a fuller picture himself, after examining the legislation governing decommissioning.

A government source said: "The irony is that we now have more than we've ever had from republicans, a very serious act of decommissioning, but we can't tell people why we believe that is the case. People need to know how many AK-47s, how many rocket launchers."

The government insisted the election planned for November 26 will go ahead. But unless the row can be patched up in the next few days there is little prospect of a new administration.

Yesterday, the cracks behind the seemingly perfect deal were exposed, with unionist and republican interpretations predictably at odds. Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, insisted all sides had reached an agreement and he still did not understand why his party had been "left at the altar".

"All of the parties to that agreement, contrary to what they say, were aware, generally speaking of what was to happen," he said. "Why would I have said what I said, why would the IRA have done what it did? But now I've heard a lot of people in the republican community saying 'Sure, what's the point?'"

Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, said the IRA had allowed General de Chastelain to say much more than on previous occasions and anyone with a "titter of wit" would not underestimate the importance of the latest decommissioning move.

Mr Trimble maintained that republicans were well aware of the "transparency and clarity" needed by unionists. But others were fiercely critical that, despite hours of one-to-one negotiations with Mr Adams, he had failed to extract a commitment to reveal the catalogue of arms destroyed.

Ian Paisley, the Democratic Unionist leader, who vehemently opposed the Good Friday agreement and will use the election to try to overtake Mr Trimble's party, accused the Ulster Unionist leader of being "totally incompetent".

Mr Ahern admitted he had been reluctant to travel to Hillsborough on Tuesday because of reservations about the decommissioning report.

"I always felt there was going to be a difficulty, for immediately people would say you need more clarity and more details," he told the Dail [Irish parliament] in Dublin yesterday.

He had tried unsuccessfully to contact the general on Monday night to discuss how the problem could be minimised. It is understood the general was out of Belfast for almost 24 hours, being taken to a secret location somewhere in Ireland where he witnessed arms being destroyed.

At Westminster, Conservative MPs questioned why the election had been announced before "all the ducks were lined up in a row".

One Tory ex-Northern Ireland minister asked: "Why wasn't the decommissioning 36 hours before the event, instead of 12 hours, so there would be time for de Chastelain to brief the two prime ministers properly?"

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