LONDON — THE two opposing sides in Northern Ireland will soon tackle the greatest obstacle to a lasting peace - the vast stockpiles of weaponry built up during 25 years of bitter conflict.
Michael Mates, a former Northern Ireland security minister for Britain, says until the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Protestant paramilitaries give up their arms, political agreement in Belfast will be ``incomplete and inherently unstable.''
Mr. Mates hopes talks, to begin before Christmas with IRA and pro-British loyalists, will set up demilitarization for early next year. (Ireland's government falls, testing peace process, Page 8.)
``Until a timetable is agreed, there is little hope of a lasting peace,'' Mates says.
The task is formidable. British security sources estimate that the IRA has more than 100 tons of armaments, including mortars, semiautomatic weapons, and Semtex high explosives. Much of this equipment came from Libya and formerly communist Eastern Europe in the 1980s.
The two main loyalist paramilitary groups - the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Defense Association (UDA) - have fewer guns and less bombmaking material but enjoy close links with elements of Ulster's Protestant population.
British security sources put the operational strength of the IRA at 500 to 600 men and women. The UDA and UVF together muster about half that number.
These numbers appear small, but the IRA and loyalist paramilitary units operate in cells spread throughout the province. Even if these groups demilitarize, the Irish National Liberation Army, a socialist group that splintered from the IRA in 1975, does not accept orders from Adams.
Last month Major said he would invite IRA representatives to talks to hammer out a timetable for arms handovers.
But officials in London and Dublin conceded that talks with the IRA would make little sense unless the UVF and the UDA joined in. On Monday Major said representatives of the UVF and UDA would be asked to join the discussions, and the loyalist paramilitaries swiftly signaled their readiness to attend.
Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, agreed that ``Loyalist participation is essential.'' But he remains tight-lipped on how flexible the IRA will be about handing in weapons.
ANDREW HUNTER, chairman of the Conservative Party's backbench committee on Northern Ireland, says IRA cooperation is ``crucial to progress'' in mutual arms handovers.
Mr. Hunter notes that the UVF and UDA began accumulating weapons in response to IRA attacks. If the IRA made the first move to demilitarize, he says, the loyalists would be under pressure to follow suit.
The difficulty in controlling guerrilla units came out Nov. 10 when gunmen, believed to be IRA members, murdered a postal worker during a robbery in the Ulster border town of Newry. In the past, robberies by the IRA have provided funds to pay for its weapons arsenal.
Adams condemned the attack, but some IRA members reportedly defended it on the grounds that it was not carried out for political reasons and therefore did not break the IRA cease-fire.
Also, IRA and loyalist ``punishment squads'' have blackmailed business people to contribute money to terrorist coffers.