BELFAST (AP) â€” The Irish Republican Army, which killed and maimed thousands in a 35-year campaign against British rule, on Thursday renounced violence as a political weapon, a move hailed by the British and Irish governments as a decisive step towards a permanent peace.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair called the statement “a step of unparalleled magnitude,” while Prime Minister Bertie Ahern of Ireland said it heralded “the end of the IRA as a paramilitary organisation.” But local leaders and some analysts warned that the underground organisation, which has previously fallen short of its public promises, had left key questions unanswered and will not disband.
The IRA said all of its clandestine units had been ordered to dump arms and cease all activities, effective 4:00pm (1500 gmt) Thursday.
In a departure from traditional practice, the IRA’s electronically distributed statement was read in a DVD presentation by IRA veteran Seanna Walsh, 48. He was one of the IRA’s longest-incarcerated prisoners, spending 21 years behind bars for making explosives, possessing a rifle and robbing a bank.
“The leadership has formally ordered an end to the armed campaign,” the IRA said in a major advance from its open-ended truce in place since 1997.
“All volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means. Volunteers must not engage in any other activities whatsoever,” the IRA command said in remarks addressed to the group’s approximately 500 to 1,000 members.
The IRA statement said John de Chastelain, a retired Canadian general who since 1997 has been trying to persuade the IRA and other illegal groups to disarm, would be invited to decommission more hidden weapons bunkers soon.
It said a Catholic priest and Protestant minister would be invited to witness the scrapping of weapons.
The IRA also appealed to Britain and Northern Ireland’s Protestant majority to accept its new position as sufficient to resume negotiations on power-sharing, the core goal of the 1998 peace accord for this British territory.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said, as far as he was concerned, the IRA had declared its war over.
“There is a time to resist, to stand up and to confront the enemy by arms if necessary. In other words, unfortunately, there is a time for war,” said Adams, who was a senior IRA commander from the mid-1970s until May, when he reportedly stepped down from the seven-man IRA command. “There is also a time to engage, to reach out and put war behind us. This is that time.” “I welcome the statement of the IRA that ends its campaign. I welcome its clarity,” Blair said in London.
“I welcome the recognition that the only route to political change lies in exclusively peaceful and democratic means. This is a step of unparalleled magnitude in the recent history of Northern Ireland.”
And Ahern, who has worked closely with Blair since 1997 to broker compromise in the British territory, said the IRA statement heralded “the end of the IRA as a paramilitary organisation.” “If the IRA’s words are borne out by verified actions, it will be a momentous and historic development,” Ahern said.
But Protestant leaders, deeply suspicious of IRA motives, stressed they would wait several months to test whether the IRA’s words proved true. They noted that the IRA was supposed to have disarmed fully by mid-2000 as part of the Good Friday accord, but did not start the process until late 2001 and stopped in 2003.
Ian Paisley, whose hard-line Democratic Unionist Party represents most Protestants, said IRA commanders “have failed to explicitly declare an end to their multimillion-pound criminal activity, and they have failed to provide the level of transparency that will be necessary to truly build confidence that the guns have gone in their entirety.” “This lack of transparency will prolong the period the community will need to make its assessment,” Paisley said.
Security experts say the IRA retains much of its arsenal hidden in underground bunkers in the neighbouring Republic of Ireland.
All sides say they remain committed to resurrecting a joint Catholic-Protestant administration that would replace Britain as the primary government authority in this long-unstable corner of the United Kingdom. But Protestants insist they will not work again with Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party, until the IRA disappears as a threat to Northern Ireland stability.
A four-party coalition led by Protestant and Catholic moderates gained power in 1999, but it fell apart in 2002 amid chronic arguments about IRA activities and arms.
Resurrecting power-sharing became more difficult in 2003 once voters â€” polarised by the diplomatic deadlock â€” shifted support to the opposite extremes of opinion: Adams’ Sinn Fein on the Irish Catholic side, and Paisley’s Democratic Unionists on the British Protestant side.
The Sinn Fein-IRA movement was thrown on the defensive by two events with exceptional repercussions â€” a mammoth robbery and an alcohol-fuelled killing. The British, Irish and American governments united behind the position that power-sharing could not be restored unless the IRA fully disarmed and went out of business â€” disbanding in practice if not in name.
In December, police accused the IRA of robbing a Belfast bank of a world-record Â£26.5 million ($50 million). In January, IRA members knifed to death a Catholic civilian outside a Belfast bar.
The IRA had killed others in similar circumstances, but this time the victim’s family risked IRA retaliation by publicly campaigning for justice.
In March, US President George W. Bush greeted the victim’s five sisters and fiancee on St Patrick’s Day, while Sinn Fein was barred from the White House.
On Thursday, Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness â€” a veteran IRA leader â€” was back on Capitol Hill to promote the IRA statement.
He received fulsome support from several US congressmen led by Rep. Peter King, a Republican from New York, who called the IRA move “a truly defining moment in Irish history.” Bush’s envoy to Northern Ireland, Mitchell Reiss, offered a more cautious welcome. “We will soon see whether these words will be turned into deeds,” he said.