BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Billy Hutchinson is waiting for the gunmen to call. He is a designated go-between who hopes to one day notify authorities that a Protestant guerrilla group is ready to turn in weapons.
"The weapons aren't the danger," he says. "It's the people who use them."
Hutchinson should know. When he was 18, he and another Protestant boy shot to death two Catholics. He spent 16 years in jail for that. Now 42, he's an apostle for peace.
And handing over the guns, the bombs and the rocket launchers from a 30-year terrorist war remains the most vexing issue facing Northern Ireland as it looks to a future of peace and prosperity. Using code words and secret rendezvous, elaborate plans are nearly complete to begin a two-year process of collecting and destroying the instruments of death.
But will the terrorists voluntarily take the gun and the bomb out of Northern Irish politics?
That is the question that shadows the British province as voters prepare to elect Thursday a 108-member local assembly, which is charged with laying new political foundations and establishing new ties with the southern Irish Republic.
Decommissioning of weapons has been negotiated behind closed doors and debated in Britain's House of Commons. It is designed to draw a line through the past, to provide tangible proof that the war is over and that minority Roman Catholics and majority Protestants can live together peacefully.
But for now, not one bullet has been turned over as the terrorists guard their caches and await the release of final disarmament plans later this month. "Paramilitaries don't want to give up their weapons," says Hutchinson.
Hutchinson is a member of the Belfast City Council and a key player with the Progressive Unionist Party, which represents the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force and the Red Hand Commandos. He says the time isn't yet right to turn over the weapons. But he is hopeful.
"The killings will stop in my lifetime and the rest of the political violence that goes with it," he says. "I think the weapons will go away. But I'm not sure in what shape or form."
Guns and gun-running have long been a part of modern Irish history, from the establishment of the Irish Free State earlier this century to the long, drawn-out terrorist troubles of the north that accounted for more than 3,200 dead. The arms arrived from the United States, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
The Irish Republican Army inventory includes assault rifles, heavy machine guns, flame throwers, rocket launchers, one surface-to-air missile and three tons of Semtex explosive, according to an August 1996 Jane's Intelligence Review study. A sizable portion of the IRA weapons was imported in the 1980s from Libya, where the IRA had a friend in Col. Muammar el Kadafi. The cache is now carefully hidden and accounted for on both sides of the Irish border.
Protestant paramilitary groups are believed to have fewer arms, but remain well supplied with military rifles, handguns and commercial explosives. They also forged a reputation over the ,, years for creating homemade weapons in machine shops.
"The arms have been sufficient to do a lot of damage over the last 30 years," says Donald C. Johnson, a U.S. diplomat who is part of the three-member Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. The panel is led by Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain and includes Finnish Brigadier Tauno Nieminen.
"We're waiting for the starter's gun," Johnson says.
The start will come later this month when the British and Irish open the decommissioning process by announcing details of the scheme to turn in weapons. As envisioned by the peace agreement, disarmament must take place by May 22, 2000, which will mark the second anniversary of the peace deal's approval by a majority of Ireland's voters.
"Technically, it can be done safely, it can be done honorably and it can be done reasonably quickly, if there is the political will to do it," Johnson says.
The groups to be disarmed are the IRA, and two coalitions of Protestant paramilitaries, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Red Hand, and the Ulster Freedom Fighters and Ulster Defense Association.
A go-between supplied with a code word will notify the commission that a group is ready to turn over arms. Transportation will be arranged. The weapons will be destroyed by security units or the former fighters themselves, with a member of the commission present to verify the disposal.
"The cloak-and-dagger stuff is for the people carrying the weapons," Hutchinson says. "Moving this stuff can be quite dangerous. Any of it could explode. It could be hijacked. That's why people need to be careful."
The weapons to be destroyed will not be matched to any crimes or subjected to forensic tests. Those handling the arms will not be prosecuted and the guerrilla groups will even receive a receipt.
"Guns can be melted down," Hutchinson says. "They can have barrels bent, trigger mechanisms destroyed. Explosives can be taken away and blown up."
But successful decommissioning involves more than machinery -- it is based on trust.
Northern Ireland's largest party, the Protestant-led Ulster Unionists, and Britain's main opposition party, the Conservatives, would like to link the weapons handover to the release of terrorist prisoners. Others claim that no matter how many guns are turned in, the terrorists could tap the international arms market and gain more weapons.
And all eyes remain on the IRA.
In an April statement, the IRA maintained, "There will be no decommissioning." But last week in an interview with the Financial Times of London, the IRA's commanding officer in the Maze prison signaled that the group might be prepared to cooperate on the issue over the next two years.
Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, has consistently maintained that it has no control over the guerrilla group or the guns, a claim derided by many within the Protestant community.
Still, Sinn Fein, like all the parties to the peace deal, pledged to work for the total disarmament of all paramilitary organizations.
"The best strategy for removing all of the guns from Irish politics is to remove all the injustices and inequality," says Sinn Fein's chief negotiator Martin McGuinness. "Once you do that, I think, the removal of weapons will be fairly straightforward. I think it will be a very lengthy process."
Pub Date: 6/20/98