26-County Prime Minister, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, has said he hopes that a decision by the Provisional IRA to stand down will come in the next few weeks.

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams made an April 6 call on the IRA to abandon its armed struggle and achieve its aims through democratic means.

Mr Ahern has refused to put a timescale on this process but it has been speculated that the British and Irish governments have set the start of the Protestant Orange marching season on July 10 as an unofficial deadline.

The premier said today of the IRA’s internal debate: “I do not know how that is going but we await the outcome. I don’t want to put a timescale on that because that would be counterproductive.

“But hopefully we won’t have too many more weeks.”

It was revealed this week that Mr Ahern had three confidential meetings with Mr Adams since March to spell out his government’s demands for a definitive end to the IRA’s armed struggle, in addition to two meetings which were publicised.

He said that Ian Paisley’s hardline unionist DUP was also waiting for the IRA’s decision.

“I think the DUP’s position is they’re unlikely to make any pronouncement until they see what unfolds. That’s a sensible position in the circumstances. We’re all waiting to see what the next move is,” he said.

Mr Ahern said the Irish and British governments were hoping for some clarity on the IRA’s future before “Drumcree Sunday” on July 10.

“Last year we had a lot of tensions so I would hope that we will be able to manage that to get it into a positive context,” he said.

Mr Ahern is also demanding that the IRA disarm completely and Sinn Féin make a commitment on policing.

A Sinn Féin spokesperson confirmed that the confidential meetings took place.

The spokesperson said: “Sinn Féin believes that there is a real opportunity to resolve the difficulties which have dogged the peace process in recent years.

“Gerry Adams meetings with the Taoiseach are about trying to ensure that this opportunity is grasped and that all of the outstanding elements of the Good Friday Agreement are implemented. We believe that the meetings have been worthwhile.”

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