'Executive Must Return before IRA Will Disarm'

Article excerpt

IRA disarmament might never happen without a return of Northern Ireland's power-sharing executive, Irish prime minister Mr Bertie Ahern warned last night.

At the same time his Junior Foreign Minister Ms Liz O'Donnell added to unionist concerns when she said the May 22 deadline for completion of decommissioning could be extended.

The SDLP deputy leader, Mr Seamus Mallon, called for a fundamental rethink of the arms issue and advocated moving decommissioning "sideways from the political process".

Ulster Unionists and the SDLP today have their first full bilateral meeting at Stormont since the suspension of the executive by Northern Ireland Secretary Mr Peter Mandelson three weeks ago.

But unionists will give short shrift to any deal which involves delaying or disengaging arms from politics.

As they meet, Alliance Party leader Mr Sean Neeson will be in Dublin for talks with Irish Foreign Minister Mr Brian Cowan and opposition leaders.

With scant sign of any breakthrough on the arms issue, there appeared to be a growing opinion among nationalist politicians that the decommissioning issue, which delayed and then collapsed power-sharing devolution, should be set aside from the search for a renewed political agreement.

Mr Ahern, commenting after his Fianna Fail party's weekend annual conference in Dublin, said there had been quite a lot of talk and debate and contact since the Executive collapsed.

But he said: "To say there is anything coming out of that dialogue is questionable. There is no basis yet to say there is a green light.

"If we get the institutions up and running again, everything is possible, but, of course, we are not going to do that unless we get some basis of discussion on the decommissioning issue. But without the institutions, decommissioning is going to be very difficult, if not impossible, ever."

Mr Ahern pointed to continuing intensive activity to make advances over the arms issue over the period up to St Patrick's Day, March 17, when political leaders from all sides in Northern Ireland, will be in Washington for White House celebrations of the event.

He said: "President Clinton's top advisers are in Ireland for the next few days, and Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Mandelson and our Foreign Minister Brian Cowen will be continuing dialogue. …