In an effort to keep the Northern Ireland peace process moving forward, Britain's prime minister is backing off the weapons question, highly placed British political sources say.
Instead of demanding that paramilitary groups surrender their weapons ahead of assembly elections this month, Prime Minister Tony Blair will require the Irish Republican Army and Protestant paramilitary units to declare that they have permanently renounced violence.
Pressure on the paramilitaries to hand in their weapons will be applied after elections are held on June 25, the British sources say.
Mr. Blair's ministers have indicated that the policy stance, which appears to be a significant weakening of the earlier British position, will be contained in legislation being introduced in the House of Commons this week.
Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam claimed in a TV interview Sunday that Blair's intentions on arms decommissioning had not altered since he negotiated the multiparty agreement. "What we have said specifically is that there have to be indications paramilitaries are seriously committed to the independent commission [on arms handovers] and on implementing the agreement," she said.
The British government is technically correct in insisting that its stance on decommissioning has not changed. At no stage did Blair say categorically that arms had to be handed over ahead of elections. But at the very least, he is indulging in fancy footwork as he struggles to keep the peace process alive and ensure that Northern Ireland assembly elections are a success.
BRITISH sources say Blair's willingness to accept a declaration of permanent peace, instead of making decommissioning a precondition of participation in the elections, reflects the advice of Northern Ireland security officials.
Making a major issue of arms decommissioning now, the sources say, could encourage dissident Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups opposed to the all-party agreement to cause trouble. It might also weaken support for Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, among voters who backed it in the May 22 referendum and thus reduce its chances in this month's election.
Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, who is in charge of arms decommissioning, last week held talks with Protestant paramilitary representatives. But an invitation to the IRA to meet him has been spurned.
Martin McGuinness, chief negotiator for Sinn Fein, said his party was not going to "fall into the trap" of agreeing that arms decommissioning is the "crucial issue" at this stage of the peace process.
In a departure, it seems unlikely that David Trimble, leader of the Protestant Ulster Unionist Party and a signatory to the April 10 multiparty agreement on Northern Ireland, will formally oppose the government bill.
Responding to reports last week that arms decommissioning would be delayed, Mr. Trimble said: "We want Sinn Fein/IRA to declare the terrorist campaign is over and there will be no future resort to violence by any element of the organization."
The government's stance means that when voters in Northern Ireland go to the polls June 25 the IRA will retain arsenals of rockets, semiautomatic rifles, and explosives.
Many of the arms caches are in the Irish Republic, near the border with Northern Ireland. Protestant paramilitary groups also have large secret stores of weapons.
Blair appears to be calculating that once an elected assembly is in place in Belfast, it will be possible to put pressure on both sides to surrender their weapons. Some reports have suggested that he will make arms handovers a precondition of releasing terrorist prisoners and implementing measures to promote sectarian equality in the Northern Ireland police force and other official bodies.
There has been speculation that once a Northern Ireland assembly is in place, Sinn Fein and the IRA will soften their stance on decommissioning, if Protestant paramilitary groups agree to a simultaneous handover.