IRA offers disarmament move
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) – Going further than ever toward disarmament, the Irish Republican Army has agreed on a secret method for getting rid of its weapons – but offered no commitment on when it would start, an independent commission announced Monday.
The governments of Britain and Ireland called it a breakthrough and urged leaders of Northern Ireland’s major Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, to drop their threat to scuttle the province’s Catholic-Protestant administration this weekend.
The disarmament commission, led by Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, said it agreed not to reveal the IRA’s method of disarming.
But, it emphasized, ”based on our discussions with the IRA representative, we believe that this proposal initiates a process that will put arms completely and verifiably beyond use.”
Deep divisions and suspicions within Protestant ranks, however, left the survival of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government in doubt.
Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble noted that his central demand – an actual start to ”decommissioning” IRA weapons – appeared no clearer.
”We’re glad to see that the IRA has taken a significant step toward decommissioning, but it hasn’t actually begun decommissioning, and of course we want to see that happen,” said Trimble, who triggered the political crisis by resigning last month as the senior Protestant in the Northern Ireland administration.
After meeting with leaders of his party, Trimble struck a harder line, saying the party opposed Britain’s plans to grant an amnesty to IRA members wanted for crimes in Northern Ireland. That was part of a wider package Britain presented last week.
Trimble said he wouldn’t seek re-election as the administration’s ”first minister” unless the disarmament commission confirmed that the IRA had begun scrapping weapons in the coming week. If no Ulster Unionist fills the top post, the law requires Britain to suspend or dissolve the local administration by Monday.
The Democratic Unionists, hard-line Protestants who joined the power-sharing government despite opposing the peace pact, said after meeting the Canadian general that he had been conned.
”We asked him: Where would the IRA decommission, how would it decommission, and most importantly when? He said he didn’t know the answer to where or when. As to how, he said if it eventually did happen, it would all be kept completely secret from the public,” said Ian Paisley, the Democratic Unionist leader.
Paisley said de Chastelain had told him he met the IRA negotiator Sunday at a location kept secret from the general himself. ”I can’t depend on a man who doesn’t know where he is or who he’s even talking to,” Paisley said.
De Chastelain’s office declined requests to comment beyond the commission’s three-sentence statement.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams dismissed Protestant complaints.
”Anyone who knows anything about arms, about insurrection, about conflict has to know that this is a historical breakthrough,” said Adams, a reputed former IRA commander.
He urged the Ulster Unionists to stabilize Northern Ireland’s government and allow de Chastelain’s work to ”start to bear fruit.”
Britain agreed. The Northern Ireland secretary of state, John Reid, said the IRA move ”provides the basis and the potential for rapidly resolving the arms issue.”
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern heaped praise on the development.
”A lot of people, particularly unionists critical of David Trimble, never thought we’d get this far, and they have been proved 100 percent wrong,” Ahern said. ”People should see the historic significance of what has happened, rather than seeing all the difficulties still in it.”
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher welcomed the statement.
”We do see this as a significant step toward the Good Friday agreement’s agreed goal of putting paramilitary weapons completely and verifiably beyond use,” he said.
Police say most of the IRA’s arsenal is hidden underground in the Republic of Ireland.
The IRA last year allowed foreign diplomats to visit a few of these dumps in secret, and to revisit them twice, to show that their contents weren’t being used. These dumps might be the first candidates for decommissioning, a deliberately vague term that could mean removal, immobilization in concrete or destruction on site.
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