Irish American Information Service


09/17/04 13:20 EST

An IRA pledge to make its biggest weapons disarmament has been drafted as the Northern Ireland peace talks enter a decisive final phase, sources said tonight.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the political parties were ready to work into the night at Leeds Castle, Kent, in an attempt to broker a deal to restore power-sharing in Belfast.

With Mr Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists insisting the paramilitary organisation must be abolished before they will revive the Stormont administration, the two Premiers have heaped pressure on Sinn Fein chiefs Mr Gerry Adams and Mr Martin McGuinness to deliver.

The IRA has already carried out three substantial acts of decommissioning, but international disarmament chief General John de Chastelain has been ordered not to reveal what guns and bomb making equipment he witnessed being destroyed.

But the DUP is insistent upon visual proof of weapons destruction and a timetable setting out when the IRA will be stood down.

It is understood a statement has been drawn up and is being studied to see if it goes far enough.

"There's a form of words floating around," one talks insider said.

"These are words from P O'Neill (IRA signature name) that have been given to Mr Blair and Mr Ahern and relayed to the DUP."

Although both republicans and unionists believe progress has been made, the Saturday lunchtime deadline, when they must vacate Leeds Castle for a wedding, was looming.

All parties were told to cancel plans to be driven away from the idyllic venue before late tonight, at the earliest.

Both Mr Blair and Mr Ahern have warned there will be no further round of negotiations.

The Prime Minister was said to be showing the strain as tensions inside the negotiations rose.

"He looks tired, even though he's such a pro," one source said.

Dublin officials also stressed they would stick with it while hopes of a breakthrough remained.

Mr Ahern's spokeswoman said: "The Taoiseach has said he's willing to work long into the night, as long as it takes."

Earlier Sinn Fein chairman Mr Mitchell McLaughlin confirmed some progress had been made.

He said: "I agree that the deal could be done. We are engaged in a process of talks that has actively intensified."

But before republicans make a move they want assurances that the Stormont Executive and Assembly will be protected.

Any attempt to totally restructure the political institutions will be fiercely resisted, the Sinn Fein chairman said.

Nevertheless, he added: "We will not be found wanting if the DUP are ready to discuss. Our view for some time is we will do business with the DUP, representing in our view a more cohesive unionism."

Mr Robinson also spoke of movement on some of the outstanding issues which have bedevilled Northern Ireland politics.

He refused, however, to indicate whether the advancement was around paramilitary violence and decommissioning, switching policing powers from Westminster to Belfast, or how the Stormont regime operated.

"Progress has been made in some areas. There are other areas where there has been no progress whatsoever. I'm not indicating how much progress we are making in any specific areas."

Mr Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, urged the IRA to make a new and detailed statement on weapons without delay.

He said: "There have been rumors that the spokesman of that private army, one P O'Neill, may be about to say something. In which case the sooner we hear it and the clearer the message the better."

For others involved, there were signs of a possible breakthrough.

Mr Mark Durkan, leader of the nationalist SDLP claimed resistance to a settlement was weakening.

He said: "I don't think we have the full combination code yet. But I think we are potentially getting to a click on some of the issues that we haven't concluded on before."

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