By Anne Cadwallader and Ray O’Hanlon
BELFAST — In a move that should save the Northern Ireland peace process from immediate and total collapse, the IRA indicated Tuesday that it had initiated its long-awaited decommissioning of weapons.
The arms move, which had seemed only a remote possibility up until recent days, was greeted with both enthusiasm and doubt.
But many commentators and observers on both sides of the Atlantic were quick to describe the move as a breakthrough of historic proportions.
In the statement — which followed only a day after Sinn FTin leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness had revealed their appeal to the IRA aimed at starting the decommissioning process — the IRA’s Army Council said it remained committed to its republican objectives, and to the establishment of a united Ireland based on justice, equality and freedom. But the statement also underlined the IRA’s commitment to a peace process that does not by itself necessarily lead in that direction.
“The political process is now on the point of collapse. Such a collapse would certainly and eventually put the overall peace process in jeopardy. There is a responsibility upon everyone seriously committed to a just peace to do our best to avoid this,” the statement said.
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“Therefore, in order to save the peace process we have implemented the scheme agreed with the IICD [Independent International Commission on Decommissioning] in August. Our motivation is clear. This unprecedented move is to save the peace process and to persuade others of our genuine intentions.”
The exact nature of the IRA’s move was not revealed, although it is widely believed that it involved the pouring of concrete into an arms bunker, or arms bunkers, and the arms being capped with a cement seal.
Within four hours of the IRA statement, the International Commission on
Decommissioning confirmed that the IRA had put a quantity of arms beyond use. It said this included weapons, ammunition and
The IICD added that it viewed the IRA’s move as significant. It said in a four-paragraph statement: “We are satisfied the arms in question have been dealt with in accordance with the scheme and regulations. We are also satisfied it would not further the process of putting all arms beyond use
were we to provide further details of this event.
“We will continue our contact with the IRA representative in the pursuit of
Media reports in Ireland indicated that the head of the IICD, retired Canadian army general John de Chastelain, had actually witnessed the decommissioning act and would quickly report on its occurrence and nature to both the Irish and British governments.
In Washington, where he was meeting with Irish American political leaders on Capitol Hill, Sinn FTin’s McGuinness described the IRA announcement as “unprecedented and truly historic.” He said it was a powerful act of good faith and commitment to the peace process.
Before the IRA statement, there had been similarly enthusiastic reaction across the political board in Ireland to news that Sinn FTin has urged the IRA to decommission some of its weapons in a bid to save the peace process from collapse.
The Ulster Unionist Party said it would accept the word of the IICD if it stated that the IRA had made its weapons either permanently beyond use or permanently inaccessible.
UUP spokesman Michael McGimpsey said that if the IRA decision was satisfactory, the three UUP ministers could be renominated, along with party leader, David Trimble, as first minister, by the Thursday midnight deadline.
The Irish government had “warmly welcomed” the development, which offered hope that the impasse in the process could be broken. The Irish minister for foreign affairs, Brian Cowen, said Sinn Fein was doing what it could to achieve decommissioning.
“Everyone will have to meet their responsibilities at this critical juncture,” he said. “The government has long recognized that putting arms beyond use is an indispensable part of the agreement.”
The SDLP leader, John Hume, said he hoped the UUP’s Trimble would respond positively by “ensuring that all the institutions remain in place and by ensuring that they work together to build a new society.”
However, the Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, was dismissive of the Adams speech. “There is nothing in it. There is no talk about the end of the battle, the war is over, no talk of the army giving up its purposes,” he said.
Paisley said he believed a “dirty deal” had been struck by Sinn FTin and the British government and that, even if de Chastelain swore on the bible, he would not believe decommissioning was starting.
Paisley led his Democratic Unionists out of the Northern Ireland Assembly on Monday after accusing the British government of double standards. The DUP chief said a republican and nationalist coalition was now in operation.
“Today no self-respecting unionist can remain in this chamber and pretend that we can do business with a government that is both republican and nationalist,” he said.
Also striking a sour note was the Ulster Unionist hard-line MP for Lagan Valley, Jeffrey Donaldson. He said the IRA must give up all its weapons if the UUP was to reengage in power-sharing arrangements with Sinn Fein.
“All of the arms have to be dealt with, and if they are not dealt with to our satisfaction, within a reasonable time frame, then we’ll have to take action again,” said Donaldson.
“We have withdrawn our ministers twice, and we reserve the right to withdraw them again,” he said, but observers believe his position has been seriously weakened by the republican move towards decommissioning.