Will Secret IRA Meeting Bring a New Cease-Fire?

British, Irish officials say such a gathering is planned

Senior government officials in London and Dublin say they have confirmation that the governing body of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) will soon meet in secret to debate - and possibly declare - a cease-fire to end the 27-year conflict in Northern Ireland.

The officials quote police and security sources who have learned that the 200-strong General Army Convention (GAC) of the IRA plans to meet within a month.

British government officials declined to make direct comments on the reports, but indicated that they expect the GAC - activists representing every IRA unit in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic - to meet within four weeks.

A conference of the GAC, if held, would be the first of its kind in 10 years and only the third since the Northern Ireland conflict erupted in 1969.

'Grounds to be optimistic'

The IRA cease-fire in August 1994, which ended when a huge bomb exploded in London's docklands early this year, was declared without the GAC having met. The cease-fire decision was taken by the IRA's 12-member executive and its army council.

Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, issued a statement Sunday saying that he had heard nothing of a GAC conference. But because he has made such denials in similar situations in the past, many observers do not take his statement as definitive.

Middle-ranking IRA sources who declined to be named say Mr. Adams and his chief ally, Martin McGuinness, plan to urge the GAC to order a new cease-fire to take effect early in November. They say the two Sinn Fein leaders will urge the GAC to approve the decommissioning of some IRA weapons as a concomitant of a cease-fire.

Sinn Fein so far has been prevented from joining in the peace process because the IRA has refused to hand in weapons and renounce violence.

Reports of an impending breakthrough in the stalled Northern Ireland peace process appeared to support comments made in Washington last week by John Bruton, prime minister of the Irish Republic. Mr. Bruton told reporters he had reason to hope that conditions existed in which a new IRA cease-fire could soon be called. Pressed to comment further, Bruton said: "I receive information that gives me grounds to be optimistic."

A British official noted that the reports of a planned GAC conference have appeared on the brink of highly sensitive discussions to be held this week in Belfast at multiparty Northern Ireland peace talks.

The talks resumed last week with the former US senator, George Mitchell, as chairman. Little if any progress was made, but there were signs of dissension within Unionist ranks.

Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, argued that two fringe Unionist parties with close links to Protestant paramilitary units should be banned from the multiparty talks. Mr. Paisley said this was because they had refused to denounce death threats made previously against a member of a Unionist splinter group. But the British and Irish governments, with concurrence of Mr. Mitchell, said the splinter parties could remain at the talks.

Laying down arms

This week's discussions will center on decommissioning terrorist weapons. Until now the Ulster Unionists, representing the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland, have demanded that the IRA hand in its weapons before Sinn Fein would be admitted to negotiations. But David Trimble, leader of the main Ulster Unionist Party, appears to be moving toward a more flexible stance. "I am now expecting serious discussions and movement on this issue [decommissioning] in the next few days by the British and Irish governments," Mr. Trimble said over the weekend.

Pressed to say whether his party's hitherto tough stand on arms decommissioning had changed, he replied, "Our concern is to ensure that actual decommissioning takes place alongside talks and that it is properly implemented. If there is a credible cease-fire underwritten by actual decommissioning, we are in a new situation."

His comments tend to underline the significance of reports that the GAC intends to meet soon and that a decision on a new cease-fire may be at the top of its agenda.

The extreme importance of the GAC was stressed Sunday in the London Observer which reported: "The IRA's Green Book lays down the rules governing the organization and conduct of war. It states categorically that the conclusion of peace must be ratified by a convention."

With Sinn Fein increasingly marginalized internationally because of renewed IRA terrorist attacks, Adams has every reason to try to persuade the GAC that the time has come for a new cease-fire.

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