To Give Peace a Chance, Britain Leaves Guns Alone It Will Not Ask Paramilitary Groups to Turn in Their Arms before June 25 Elections for Northern Ireland Assembly

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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. …