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New N.Ireland Deadlock as IRA Arms Move Rebuffed

Britain and Ireland faced the familiar problem of rescuing the Northern Ireland peace process from crisis on Wednesday after the Irish Republican Army (IRA)'s biggest act of disarmament was rebuffed by Protestant leaders.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Premier Bertie Ahern arrived in the province expecting to seal the most significant breakthrough since the 1998 Good Friday peace deal.

But they found themselves mounting a damage limitation operation.

"We are not going to reach agreement tonight, which is a great disappointment to us," a frustrated Blair told reporters at Hillsborough Castle, south of Belfast, late on Tuesday.

"As always with Northern Ireland, we will try, try and try again."

Earlier on Tuesday, Britain set a clearly orchestrated sequence of events in train by declaring elections to Northern Ireland's powersharing assembly would be held on November 26.

The IRA quickly followed with a statement saying a substantial cache of the weapons that sustained its long and bloody campaign against British rule had been "put beyond use."

John de Chastelain, the retired Canadian general charged with overseeing guerrilla disarmament, confirmed the IRA had "decommissioned" automatic rifles, explosives and other weapons.

But although the general said the move involved more weapons than two previous acts of IRA disarmament he has witnessed over the last two years, he gave no more details, and the event was dismissed as too secretive by pro-British unionists.


David Trimble, whose mainstream Ulster Unionists faces a stiff challenge from the hardline Democrat Unionist Party in the battle for Protestant votes, said it was not enough for him to commit to return to government with the Catholic IRA's political ally Sinn Fein.

"What we needed in this situation was a clear, transparent report on major acts of decommissioning, the nature of which would have a significant impact upon public opinion and demonstrate that we were in a different context," he said.

"Unfortunately we have not had that...We are in effect now putting the sequence on hold."

The crisis was seized on by DUP leader Ian Paisley, who said the process of IRA disarmament "has been shown to be nothing more than a hollow sham."

Sinn Fein chief Gerry Adams, whose commitment earlier in the day to "exclusively peaceful and democratic means of resolving difficulties" was endorsed in an IRA statement, reacted angrily to the setback.

"There was an agreement on a range of issues, and my firm view is republicans have honored all their commitments," he said. "I think we are in the short term in fairly profound difficulties."

Britain suspended the Northern Ireland Assembly and other powersharing institutions in October 2002, ushering in new era of uncertainty. Unionists had refused to stay in government with Sinn Fein after the IRA was accused of operating a spy ring.

The British government had hoped the IRA move would be enough to persuade Unionists to return to the Protestant/Catholic coalition and so safeguard the 1998 Good Friday peace deal, which aimed to end 30 years of sectarian violence.

Blair insisted the November election would go ahead, but unless the latest weapons impasse can be resolved Northern Ireland faces a bad-tempered campaign with no guarantee the assembly will be able to function after the poll.

(China Daily October 22, 2003)

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