White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan commended the IRA’s, “important and potentially historic statement,” and chief Sinn Fein negotiator Martin McGuinness received a warm reception from sympathetic members of Congress during his round of calls here on Thursday.
“The statement must now be followed by actions demonstrating the republican movement’s unequivocal commitment to the rule of law and to the renunciation of all paramilitary and criminal activities,” added McClellan.
According to White House officials, President Bush was informed by national security council staff in the morning prior to the official announcement in Dublin.
Later in the day, the president telephoned DUP leader Ian Paisley.
“The president stressed the importance of the IRA’s responsibility to follow through on its words with action, and the president encouraged Dr. Paisley to give the IRA the opportunity to live up to what they said they will do,” reported McClellan.
Bush spoke with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams a day later and said he hoped the IRA’s pledge would end armed actions in Northern Ireland.
“The president stressed that this is an important opportunity to seize. The president talked about the importance of moving forward with action and showing leadership,” said McClellan.
“The president noted our continuing support for peace and reconciliation for the people of Northern Ireland,” he added.
White House officials and advisors said Washington took its cue from London and Dublin in reaction to the IRA statement.
Bush administration special envoy to Northern Ireland, Mitchell Reiss, met Martin McGuinness on Thursday morning at the State Department and received personal reassurances regarding the IRA’s position.
Reiss reiterated after the meeting, “The statement is very encouraging, it’s potentially historic, and we need to wait and see over the next weeks and months if these words can be translated into deeds to determine if it is truly historic.”
McGuinness indicated while he was in Washington that the eight years between the acceptance of the Good Friday accord and the IRA’s recent pledge to put down the gun was time well spent.
“The IRA will be true to their word,” he promised.
“Many people that are Irish republicans would be of a view that it is better to have a united IRA supporting exclusively peaceful means than a despondent situation where people can wander off into all sorts of organizations if they so choose, and I don’t think many would choose to do that but if there’s a risk of anyone joining a dissident group that is hostile to the peace process than it should be avoided at all costs,” he said.
Amongst the reactions to the IRA’s statement was a White House demand that republicans “sever all ties to international terrorist organizations.”
U.S. officials are still concerned over the Colombia Three affair in which three Irishmen were found guilty of helping to train the FARC terrorist group during their visit to Colombia in 2001.
The IRA and Sinn Fein’s historic ties to the ETA Basque separatists in Spain and republican links to other terrorist groups were “no longer acceptable,” said a White House official.
“We understand that the IRA and its members will no longer have any contact with any foreign paramilitary and terrorist organizations,” said McClellan.
The White House, officials said, chose to specifically “put the IRA on notice” that any future collusion or relationships by Provisional IRA members with other terrorist groups would jeopardize the status of Sinn Fein in the U.S. and would not be abided.
Asked during a press conference on Capitol Hill with members of Congress about the words of caution in the White House statement, McGuinness stood by the IRA’s declaration and emphasized that he expected volunteers would comply with the order to end all activities related to the armed struggle.
“It’s a good feeling today,” said one senior Bush administration official, “but we still have skepticism and hope that words really are followed up by action.”
Administration officials believe unionists will accept the verification process that is in place to monitor arms decommissioning, and the White House still endorses using photographs to verify arms decommissioning and believe it would move the process along more quickly if unionists could actually see arms caches being surrendered by the IRA.
“It will be the people on the ground, in their neighborhoods in Belfast that will able to tell if the IRA is still recruiting, who will see if the IRA is still training, and it’s the opinion of those people that ultimately will count,” said the official.
George Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader from Maine who brokered the Good Friday agreement, predicted the IRA and its sympathizers had “seen the benefits of peace and normality and they couldn’t go back to the way it was.”