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N.Irish peace deadline passes

IRA graffiti
Graffiti echoes the IRA's long-held disarmament policy  

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- The latest Northern Ireland peace process deadline has been missed as the main pro-British party considers it answer to latest developments.

Senior Ulster Unionist politicians are due to meet on Tuesday to thrash out their position on an Irish Republican Army (IRA) weapons statement and an Anglo-Irish plan to move the peace process forward.

The IRA has proposed a way of putting its weapons "beyond use" while London and Dublin wants an answer to its suggestions for kickstarting the peace process.

So far Ulster Unionists have not given their opinion on the Anglo-Irish plan -- called The Way Forward -- despite an original deadline of Monday for responses.

Late on Monday the British government admitted the midnight deadline would not be enforced but did not introduce a new deadline.

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The body overseeing paramilitary disarmament in Northern Ireland, one of the most contentious issues, said the IRA had put forward a plan for putting its weapons "beyond use."

General John de Chastelain, who is in charge of the body, said the republican paramilitary group had suggested a method for putting arms "completely and verifiably beyond use."

The move -- hailed as highly significant by the British and Irish governments -- came as Unionists decided how to respond to The Way Forward.

Senior UUP politicians met on Monday night ahead of a meeting of UUP members of the Northern Ireland assembly on Tuesday.

Party leader and former First Minister David Trimble said: "We're glad to see that the IRA has taken a significant step towards decommissioning but it hasn't actually begun decommissioning. And of course we want to see that happen."

His party also has concerns at some proposals in the Aglo-Irish document such as how to reform the Royal Ulster Constabulary police force.

But it is disarmament that has so far provided the major sticking point for progress.

Trimble resigned as First Minister over the issue after the IRA refused to surrender any of its weapons or explosives.

The Good Friday pact initially called for total paramilitary disarmament by mid-2000 but that deadline was extended to June 2001.

As the second deadline approached Trimble also said he would resign as First Minister that day unless there was disarmament progress.

But there was no public word from the IRA until Monday -- and the UUP leader carried out his threat.

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The de Chastelain commission was set up in 1997 to oversee the disarmament proposal, but has been largely reduced to checking that stockpiles of ammunition have not been moved or used.

The International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) said in Monday's statement: "Based on our discussions with the IRA representative we believe that this proposal initiates a process that will put IRA arms completely and verifiably beyond use."

No further details on the proposal, put forward in a recent meeting, are available but it would meet the commission's remit, it said.

Gerry Adams, president of the republican Sinn Fein party, told the UK's Press Association said: "Once again, the IRA has demonstrated its commitment to the search for a lasting peace.

"The other parties need to match that commitment and should respond positively and constructively."

If the opposing sides fail to reach agreement this week it could lead to the suspension of the power-sharing Northern Ireland assembly and a possible return to direct rule from London or new elections.

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