A deal set to be struck between the British government and the political wing of the Irish Republican Army promises to give a major and much-needed boost to the Northern Ireland peace process.
Part of the deal would allow former Northern Ireland paramilitaries - Catholic or Protestant - to keep handguns for personal protection. In return, the IRA would destroy some of its field weapons and place the rest in sealed and monitored dumps.
Such an arrangement would fall short of the total disarmament required under the 1998 Good Friday peace accord, but would mark the first handover of weapons by the IRA. The group previously has said such a move would amount to surrender.
British government sources say further details of the deal - seen by Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Ireland counterpart, Bertie Ahern, as crucial to moving the peace process toward conclusion - are expected to be unveiled later this month.
Members of the IRA and its political ally, Sinn Fein, have told the British government that retaining side arms is essential for defense against attacks by either pro-British Protestant or pro-Ireland Catholic extremists opposed to the peace process.
The number of side arms the IRA would be allowed to retain is comparatively small - perhaps no more than 200 or 300. This reflects the fact that terrorist acts during the past 30 years of sectarian violence have been the work of a tightly knit band of paramilitaries. It is expected that members of Protestant terrorist groups and supporters also will be allowed to keep side arms.
The package of security proposals is due to be considered by Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, head of the Northern Ireland disarmament agency. It is believed to include a plan by Britain to halve the number of its troops in the province to 3,000, to close several Army bases there, and to implement more or less in full a plan to reform and reduce the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the mainly Protestant police force.
An unnamed IRA intermediary is to give General de Chastelain details of a plan to detonate - probably in Ireland - a cache of obsolete weapons. Britain's Sunday Telegraph newspaper reported yesterday that de Chastelain had been invited to witness the destruction of a "symbolic" cache of weapons later this month.
The go-between also will discuss arrangements for placing modern IRA weapons, plus explosives, in special sealed dumps equipped with alarms linked to local police stations. This arrangement would be intended to satisfy Northern Ireland Protestants that IRA arms had been decommissioned.
British law bans private citizens from owning handguns of any kind. Special legislation will be needed to legitimize their possession. The precise timing of these arrangements is unclear, but there is pressure on all parties to speed up the security elements of the peace process ahead of a planned meeting of the Protestant Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) council in February.
Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, who also heads Northern Ireland's fledgling self-rule government, will have to convince his party's ruling body that the IRA and Sinn Fein are serious about decommissioning.
Late last year, Mr. Trimble won the council's continuing support for the peace process, but on condition that the IRA demonstrated its goodwill on the destruction or handover of weapons and bomb-making equipment.
Trimble aides say privately that the first minister favors the arms deal. But they stress that the UUP council is unlikely to continue to back him if the deal falls through or remains unclear.
On Saturday, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness said it was "inconceivable that power-sharing in the province would collapse over the issue of decommissioning."
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams is showing signs of confidence that the peace process will continue on the lines worked out by mediator George Mitchell, the former US senator. Later this week, Mr. Adams and Northern Ireland Health Minister Bairbre de Brun travel to Washington for White House talks. There is no confirmation they will meet President Clinton, but Sinn Fein sources say talks with the national security adviser are scheduled.
In a further sign of easing security pressures, the Department of Finance in Dublin is urging the Defense Department to reduce Ireland's Army from three brigades to one. This would mean cutting front-line strength from around 7,000 to about 3,000 troops.
Irish Defense Minister Michael Smith already has said reductions in troop numbers are justified because of the reduced threat from terrorist groups. On Jan. 26, Mr. Smith is due to give the Cabinet in Dublin details of a major defense review.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society