Sinn Fein chief negotiator Martin McGuinness is travelling to Washington on Tuesday amid intense speculation that disarmament by the Provisional IRA is imminent and could come as soon as next week.

On the day before the statement by the Provisional IRA ending its armed struggle at the end of July, Mr McGuinness also travelled to Washington to be in a position to discuss the announcement with senior US politicians and Irish-American supporters.

This is seen as just part of a series of events in which Sinn Fein is preparing supporters for the further winding down of the IRA.

At an internal party conference on Thursday,  Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams told senior party members that the public and even republicans have not fully absorbed just how significant was the July IRA statement pledging to end its armed campaign and decommission.

Mr Adams, who is meeting Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in Dublin today, said in emphatic terms in a speech in the republican area of south Armagh that the IRA would deliver on its July pledges, and that this could prove difficult for republicans.

Today Mr Adams meets the Taoiseach, Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern and Minister for Justice Michael McDowell, while he will speak at a Sinn Fein Irish unity rally in Dublin tomorrow.

In Mullaghbawn in south Armagh, Mr Adams addressed Sinn Fein leaders and elected representatives.. Departing from his prepared address, he told this Sinn Fein audience that the IRA would meet its pledges to end activity and disarm. "Let me give a clear signal here: the Army is going to deliver on its commitments on the armed struggle.

"And republicans are going to hear that in the news. And republicans may feel a sense of deflation. There is nobody going to be cheering. So once that [shock] is absorbed we are going to be challenged on [a range] of other issues as well."

Mr Adams, in again departing from his script last night, suggested that the recent IRA initiative had been underestimated.

"This is something that in many, many ways is a potentially huge sea change, not just for us, for the people of the North, but for the entire island. I think it has changed the political context utterly. I don't think republicans have absorbed what it is about. I don't think the media have absorbed what it is about, I don't think our enemies have absorbed what it is about.

"But when the Army delivers, when our opponents and our enemies no longer have the IRA to use as an excuse, what are they going to do?"

Mr Adams indicated that the Provisional Republican Movement, by removing itself from the physical-force tradition, could make advances in an exclusively peaceful campaign to achive unity.

Again going off script he said, "What 'the army' has done is to take a huge step of confidence in the rest of us, that we can actually take this bouncing ball and bring it forward."

He saw IRA moves as bringing major political advances for Sinn Fein. "The potential for significant growth throughout the island is massive. Why can't we have a Sinn Fein cumann in every townland or parish. The fact is that republicans are now in a new era of struggle," added Mr Adams.

On Wednesday, British Direct Ruler Peter Hain insisted  that IRA decommissioning is of a "momentous" and "credible" nature to further the political process in the North.

Mr Hain said that the "signs were good" that the IRA was meeting its pledge in the statement to end all activity. "The reports and information I have seem to suggest it is being delivered upon on the ground," he said.

However, Mr Hain said what was critical in order to create fresh political momentum was that the entire community would believe that the IRA also lived up to its commitment to fully disarm.

"What is important is that they move, not just sooner rather than later, but that they move with credibility so that everybody, including even the most sceptical and suspicious, can be convinced that the promises to dump arms on July 28th are genuinely being implemented and the decommissioning is a major and momentous event," he added.

Mr Hain said that following decommissioning, Independent Monitoring Commission reports, most importantly January's IMC report, could further establish that the IRA had truly ended its armed campaign and put its arms beyond use.

Thereafter there would be pressure for political negotiations leading to the restoration of the Northern Executive, he indicated. "Then we can get moving," said Mr Hain.

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