The British and Irish governments, perhaps learning from past mistakes, appear determined to seize the initiative and put pressure on Ian Paisley’s DUP to come to the negotiating table.
Sinn Fein is planning to throw itself into a renewed battle for votes, particularly in the Republic, that could see the party in power on both sides of the border in the medium term.
IRA decommissioning is expected to be completed by the end of the year. A statement from the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning announcing a beginning is expected.
A Protestant clergyman and a Catholic priest are also to witness IRA disarmament. There is no sign, however, of any intention by loyalists to end their activities or begin decommissioning.
The Northern Secretary, Peter Hain, said legislation would be introduced this autumn to resolve the outstanding issue of IRA suspects “on the run” from outstanding prosecutions.
Over the next six months, the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), the British government body set up at the behest of the UUP, and which consists of four security/political establishment figures who monitor paramilitary activity, is to verify the IRA commitment.
Confirming that the IMC would produce an additional report in January, Hain said the IRA’s decision was “an historic turning point”, but added, “Nevertheless, the way that the conflict has played out means there will be some caution”.
All the main churches welcomed the statement, along with both governments, the Pope, Sinn Fein itself and the SDLP. In the opposing corner, for very differing reasons, stand both the unionists and dissident republicans.
So far, it appears the IRA leadership has the support of most of its members, although some republicans are stunned at the pace of events and are still coming to terms with the decision.
While some British newspapers described the IRA statement as an effective surrender, others accused the two governments of caving in to terrorism and accepting the IRA’s word on trust.
There was no outward sign on the streets of Belfast, on either side of the political divide, of the historic nature of the IRA’s statement – in strong contrast to its 1994 ceasefire announcement.
Most nationalists asked for their views in various radio and television “vox pops” appeared quietly content with the decision. On the unionist side of the community, there was almost universal suspicion.
In an emotionally-charged press conference in Dublin, the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, called the announcement “a courageous and confident initiative”. It was, he said, “a truly momentous and defining point in the search for a lasting peace with justice.”
“I appeal for unity and solidarity among all Irish republicans on the island of Ireland and beyond and for the struggle to be carried forward with new energy and enthusiasm”, he said.
There was an enormous responsibility, said Adams, to seize this moment and to make Irish freedom a reality. He urged all republicans, including IRA members, to “put their undoubted talents and energy into building a new Ireland.”
The IRA statement, he said, placed a particular onus on the British and Irish governments to implement the agreement and “end the pandering to those unionists who are rejectionist.”
Republicans, he said, would not be surprised if their opponents continued to try to defeat them. “Initiatives by the IRA are unlikely to change, in the short-term, the attitude of those who oppose us.”
“National liberation struggles can have different phases. There is a time to resist, to stand up and to confront the enemy by arms if necessary. In other words, there is a time for war.
“There is also a time to engage, to reach out, to put the war behind us all. There is a time for peace. There is a time for justice. There is a time for rebuilding. This is that time. This is the era of the nation builders,” he said.
Adams also addressed those who had suffered. “Today will be an emotional one for many people,” he said. “I want to extend my solidarity to the families of our patriot dead. I am also conscious of the many other families, on all sides, who have suffered. Let us all do everything we can to ensure that no-one else dies.”
Addressing whether Sinn Fein would now join the Policing Board, Adams said his party’s attitude was “very clear and totally unambiguous” and he would only call a special ard fheis when it had satisfaction on some central questions.
These included, he said, the transfer of justice powers from Westminster to a Stormont administration, plastic bullets and “who runs the securocrats and the spooks and the spies.”
“These are issues which can be resolved,” Adams said, adding that republicans paid taxes like everyone else and deserved fair, impartial and accountable policing.
The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, said the IRA statement meant “the war is over. The IRA’s armed campaign is over, paramilitarism is over and I believe that we can look to the future of peace and prosperity.”
The British prime minister, Tony Blair, welcomed the clarity of the IRA statement and said it paved the way for the restoration of the suspended democratic institutions.
“Unionism will want to know that these circumstances are permanent and verified, but if in time they are, proper devolved democratic government should be restored”, he said.
“This may be the day when finally, after all the false dawns and dashed hopes, peace replaces war, politics replaces terror on the island of Ireland.”
Unionist leaders were unremitting in their hostility and rejection of the IRA statement. UUP leader, Sir Reg Empey, said that “Since the IRA has killed thousands and injured thousands more, it is inexcusable that the statement claims its ‘armed struggle’ was legitimate.”
DUP leader, Ian Paisley, said the unionist community felt “no obligation to cheer the words of P. O’Neill. We will judge the IRA’s bona fides over the next months and years based on its behavior and activity.”
“The history of the past decade is littered with IRA statements which we were told were ‘historic’, ‘ground-breaking’ and ‘seismic'”, he said. “These same statements were followed by the IRA reverting to type and carrying out more of its horrific murders and squalid criminality.”
“They have failed to explicitly declare an end to their multi-million pound criminal activity and have failed to provide the level of transparency that would be necessary to truly build confidence that the guns had gone in their entirety.
“We treat with contempt their attempt to glorify and justify their murder campaign and we will be evaluating the extent of the price paid by the government and the consequences that will have for the political process,” said Paisley.
Fellow DUP MP, Jeffrey Donaldson, said: “We want to know when the IRA talks about not engaging in any other activity that includes criminal activity. We would liked it to have been more explicit.”
“We want to look in detail at what’s meant by the two church men being involved with the decommissioning process and just how much information will be brought out into the public domain.”
The SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, said the IRA appeared to have indicated its break with violence was “clear, clean and complete”, but added “It has to be noted that the statement does not commit to the provisional movement to policing.”
Dissenting voices came from those who believe the IRA should not have made the statement. Ruair