By Susan Falvella-Garraty and Ray O’Hanlon
WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Clinton has warmly welcomed the IRA’s initiative on weapons decommissioning.
"It is a truly historic step," Clinton said Saturday from the South Lawn of the White House.
"For the first time the IRA is clearly committed to decommissioning and a process to get there," he said. "I applaud that. I want to thank the prime ministers and Gerry Adams and everyone else who was involved in this."
Clinton said this time he thought the Good Friday agreement would hold together.
"Of course, the unionists still have to formally accept it, but this idea of storing the weapons and having the storage site monitored, I think is a way for both of them to achieve their previously stated objectives."
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Clinton said neither side had ever reached this far before in the implementation process of the Good Friday accord of 1998. As someone who, according to his aides, was closely involved in the days leading up to this latest agreement, the president was exceptionally upbeat on the possibility of final success and restoration of the suspended governing executive’s powers.
"We always knew, I think, that the sequencing of decommissioning and the full implementation of the accords by both sides and by the British government would be a problem," the president said.
Clinton told reporters that republicans had reached out to unionists.
"The fact that the IRA has accepted it and that Sinn Féin has obviously had a role in that is a big step," the president said. "Of course, I hope it will be fully accepted by all parties and we can get the government back up and go on."
The latest boost for a sustainable peace in Northern Ireland personally pleased the president a great deal, said one White House official.
"We worked hard for many days and nights in the last few weeks to help seal the deal," the official said.
Clinton made assurances similar to the ones that allowed the original acceptance two years ago by the pro-agreement parties of the Good Friday accord, the official added.
Several White House officials have said the administration is seriously eyeing a late summer trip to Ireland by President Clinton to, it is hoped, "celebrate the full implementation" of the peace accord he helped to set in motion eight years ago.
Clinton’s upbeat response to the latest developments was reflected by other political leaders and Irish American organizations — but not unconditionally.
"The news that the IRA will put arms beyond use is much welcomed. It is now time to move beyond the arms-decommissioning issue that has so long stalled the search for justice and lasting peace in the north of Ireland," said Rep. Ben Gilman, chairman of House International Relations Committee.
Irish American Unity Conference president James Gallagher expressed surprise at the IRA move. He called it a "magnanimous gesture" in the face of "still more delay and ambiguity on the part of the British government."
Gallagher said the most important question remained unanswered. "Is there still a Belfast agreement and will it be parked again with the next temper tantrum of the loyalist minority?"
Tom Gilligan, national president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, said he felt that the "latest breakthrough" had been artificially created by an intransigent and belligerent loyalist minority.
"If this latest lurch forward succeeds — and we hope it does — it will be due to the enduring benevolence and compassion of the Irish people who want peace so desperately they are willing to suffer these sickening scenarios interminably," Gilligan said.
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin party chairman Mitchell McLaughlin arrived in the U.S. Tuesday. He is expected to spend the rest of this week meeting with political and community leaders in Washington and New York.
"No question but this is a significant breakthrough. It’s amazing really," McLaughlin said before departing for the U.S.
"Obviously, the debate within unionism will have its own dynamics, but for both Sinn Féin and unionists, there is clearly a significant amount of creative thinking ahead. But this is it. There’s enough now to work on."