IRA arms row hits plans to restore power sharing

HOPES of an early return to power sharing in the North were dealt a serious blow last night as an extraordinary row erupted over whether the IRA held back part of its arsenal from decommissioning.

Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern's call for intensive talks on devolution was overshadowed by the dispute stoked by revelations in the Independent Monitoring Commission's report.

In an unprecedented public stand-off, IMC commissioner Lord Alderdice said he could not show the "degree of confidence" expressed by decommissioning chief General John de Chastelain that the IRA had not retained guns.

DUP leader Ian Paisley demanded General de Chastelain reopen the decommissioning issue.

However, in a positive assessment the IRA was moving "in the right direction" the IMC document stated its leadership had "taken the strategic decision to end the armed campaign and pursue the political course". The report said the IRA had not been involved in paramilitary activity or recruitment since August, but was still involved in spying and criminality such as smuggling and money laundering.

The IRA was likened to an oil tanker "taking time to completely turn around."

The reference to the IRA retaining arms was the only surprise in the document.

It stated: "the material goes beyond what might possibly have been expected to have missed decommissioning, such as a limited number of handguns kept for personal protection or some items the whereabouts of which were no longer known."

An IRA statement insisted the organisation had honoured all public commitments on decommissioning.

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