Plenty of words, but no evidence of guns destroyed

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THE IRA’s act of weapons decommissioning yesterday was ultimately not enough to end Northern Ireland’s long-running impasse.

The event was witnessed only by General John de Chastelain, the Canadian who has been in charge of the creepingly slow decommissioning process in Northern Ireland for eight years.

What David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, desperately required was an alternative verification that was separate from the Independent International Commission for Decommissioning - such is the unenviable nature of political progress in Northern Ireland.

If Mr Trimble had been in possession of photographic evidence or even a report by a second witness of what and how much weaponry had been destroyed, he may well have been able to sell it to his highly cynical party executive.

But of course only the utterance of four short, but exquisitely crucial, words will ever cause a dramatic shift in attitudes in Northern Ireland.

In short, until the Irish Republican Army declares "the war is over" the tortuous wrangles over the Good Friday "dis"Agreement will continue.

The remaining IRA weaponry is understood to be sufficient to arm up to 1,000 members of the organisation and even Sinn Fein acknowledges that because there was such little detail about the last two acts of decommissioning, Unionists will be sceptical about yesterday’s arms destruction.

The arsenal is said to include up to 1,000 Kalashnikov rifles, about 500 handguns, 50 heavy and general purpose machine guns, RPG-7 rocket launchers, home-made grenade launchers and mortars, as well as a significant amount of Semtex - possibly two tonnes or more.

The IRA also imported from the United States a number of Barrett Light Fifty sniper rifles, which they used to kill nine British Army soldiers and police officers in south Armagh, close to the border with the Irish Republic.

These killings have been glorified by the IRA in the so-called "bandit country" surrounding towns in south Armagh with mock road signs indicating "Sniper at Work".

For the IRA, the possession of weaponry has a totemic power, far greater than its military value. Guns are part of the IRA’s constitution; to a hard core of Provos, decommissioning its weapons is like spitting on their founders’ graves.

So the carefully constructed generalities and platitudes from Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, and the statement issued by a shadowy IRA figure will not even slightly persuade every last Unionist to turn turtle and trust republicanism.

In truth, any act of decommissioning is really just an act of political symbolism because terrorist groups are quite capable of replenishing their arsenal within hours and most of the IRA’s big London bombs relied on agricultural fertiliser as explosive.

Mr Trimble said the process was "on hold", the reality is that Hell will freeze over before the IRA leadership would sanction the filming of its weapons being destroyed.

Internally, the IRA can never be seen to surrender to the ancient English enemy.

The very real fear is that the minute such pictures ever appear is the same minute that the Provisionals would split and physical-force republicanism would explode back into the open after a long spell in the deep freeze.

If Mr Blair had been hoping for an easy political hit to ease himself back into the job after just 24 hours off to recover from a heart scare, he should have known better than to look to Belfast to provide it.

Looking resigned to spending another night away from home, Mr Blair said: "Well, here we are again in the Northern Ireland peace process, and it wouldn’t be the Northern Ireland peace process without the odd glitch coming along at the last moment."