Down to disarming in Northern Ireland

British premier met both sides this week to lock in cross-border cooperative groups.

The peace process in Northern Ireland appears set to take a significant step forward in the next few days.

Political leaders here say agreement is imminent on forming six or more cross-border bodies that will coordinate policies between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic on such matters as education, health, and transport.

That should pave the way for a full North-South ministerial council to develop cooperation between the two parts of Ireland. Such bodies are seen as a key requirement if trust is to be built between Protestant and Catholic political parties in Northern Ireland.

David Trimble, Unionist first minister in the Northern Ireland assembly, told the Monitor that he expected the North-South implementation bodies envisaged under the April 10 peace agreement to be set up within the next week or two.

Mr. Trimble said there was a good prospect the bodies would be "up and running by February" - the deadline set under the peace agreement.

Gerry Kelly, a senior figure in Sinn Fein, political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), told the Monitor that agreement on setting up the bodies was "long overdue." He said cross-border cooperation was "crucial if the peace process is to move ahead."

British officials here say visits to the province and the Irish Republic on Nov. 24 and 25 by British Prime Minister Tony Blair were likely to ensure agreement on the cross-border bodies.

In the Northern Ireland capital, Mr. Blair met leaders of all parties that signed the April agreement. In Dublin, he was to see Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and address a joint meeting in Dublin of the Republic's houses of Parliament.

Blair's officials say progress on North-South institutions could set the scene for movement on the much more contentious issue of decommissioning arms held by paramilitary groups.

On decommissioning, Trimble and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams remain at loggerheads.

Trimble told the Monitor he was "confident progress can be made" on breaking the deadlock between himself and "Sinn Fein-IRA." But Republican paramilitary groups, he said, had "so far shown no sign of agreeing to hand in their weapons or explosives.

"Until that happens, there can be no movement on allowing Sinn Fein to take a place in the executive committee called for in the peace agreement," he added.

Sticking firmly to Mr. Adams's line, his lieutenant Gerry Kelly, a former IRA activist, said the first move in breaking the deadlock was "up to Trimble."

Mr. Kelly accused Trimble of using the decommissioning issue as a "delaying tactic to keep us off the executive."

Ahead of anticipated progress on cross-border bodies, there have been reports that the decommissioning issue could be resolved as part of a trade-off agreement involving changes in the role and character of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Northern Ireland's police force.

The Irish Times reported Nov. 18 that the former British Cabinet minister Chris Patten, chairman of a commission on the future policing of Northern Ireland, had prepared a draft report advocating the effective disbanding of the RUC.

Mr. Patten has denied the report, but there is persistent speculation that in his final findings next year he will recommend the 12,000-strong police force be greatly reduced in size and that its officers cease carrying weapons.

SINN FEIN has continued to say that weapons carried by the RUC should be equated with arms held by the IRA - a view hotly contested by Unionists and not accepted by the British government.

Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, who is in charge of decommissioning under the peace agreement, told the Monitor he had "no mandate" to deal with "legally held weapons." He conceded, however, that the overall peace process was "political as well as technical."

If there is to be some kind of trade-off between the future of the RUC and decommissioning by paramilitary groups, it would appear that it will have to be negotiated among the political parties, perhaps with some stimulus from London and Dublin.

New North-South institutions could set the scene for movement on a tough issue: decommissioning arms.

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