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IRA ending longtime 'armed campaign'
Updated: 2005-07-29 11:49

The Irish Republican Army renounced the use of violence against British rule Thursday and said it will disarm ! a dramatic end to the IRA's 35-year threat to Northern Ireland and a boost toward peace making, reported Associated Press.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair praised what he called "a step of unparalleled magnitude," and leaders in Ireland and the United States also heralded the announcement as historic.

But some analysts and politicians warned that the outlawed IRA ! which pointedly will not disband ! left wiggle room for its members to keep some weapons and control a criminal empire in a territory whose Roman Catholic and Protestant communities remain deeply divided.

Sinn Fein party leader Gerry Adams, who reportedly quit the IRA's seven-man command in May after three decades, said the IRA was effectively ending its self-declared war to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom.

"There is a time to resist, to stand up and to confront the enemy by arms if necessary," Adams said. "In other words, unfortunately, there is a time for war. There is also a time to engage, to reach out, to put the war behind us all. ... This is that time."

Thursday's declaration followed a two-year diplomatic showdown between the IRA and its allied Sinn Fein party, on the one hand, and an increasingly unified, impatient world community on the other.

The IRA has faced mounting international pressure to disarm and disband since December, when police blamed it for a world-record $50 million bank robbery. The following month IRA members knifed to death a Catholic civilian outside a Belfast bar, touching off an unprecedented campaign for justice by the victim's family.

In its statement, the IRA said it had "formally ordered an end to the armed campaign," a fundamental advance on its existing 1997 cease-fire, which had been open-ended. The statement was read aloud by IRA veteran Seanna Walsh in a DVD recording distributed to broadcasters.

The IRA said it instructed its members to "dump arms." It didn't specify how, or whether members would be allowed to retain any weapons, but said its representative would reopen talks immediately with John de Chastelain, a retired Canadian general who since 1997 has been trying to disarm the IRA and Northern Ireland's myriad other outlawed gangs.

The IRA said it hoped to complete the disposal of its weapon stockpiles "as quickly as possible" and would allow Catholic and Protestant clergy to witness the disarmament work. The IRA surrendered unknown amounts of arms in 2001, 2002 and 2003 amid total secrecy, fueling Protestants' suspicions they were being conned.

The British, Irish and American governments have stressed that the central goal of Northern Ireland's Good Friday peace accord of 1998 ! a stable Catholic-Protestant administration ! simply would never happen unless the IRA disbanded in fact, if not in name.

That conclusion followed the collapse in 2002 of a moderate-led coalition amid chronic arguments over IRA activities and weapons stockpiles. Sinn Fein had two of 12 posts in that coalition, but would be the major Catholic part of any future coalition because of its growing vote.

From Dublin to Washington, leaders voiced hope that the IRA really is going out of business after killing 1,775 people and maiming thousands more in a dogged but doomed campaign.

In all, 3,650 people have been killed in the conflict over this British territory since 1969, the year the modern "Provisional" IRA was founded in Belfast with the aim of abolishing Northern Ireland as a predominantly Protestant corner of the United Kingdom. Its last major violence came during a 17-month stretch in the mid-1990s that included massive truck bombings in London, and Manchester, England.

"This statement is unprecedented. If the IRA's words are borne out by verified actions, it will be a stark and momentous development," said Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who has worked closely with Blair since 1997 to broker compromise in the British territory.

In Washington, President Bush's envoy to Northern Ireland, Mitchell Reiss, welcomed the IRA statement as "very encouraging," but he cautioned: "We will soon see whether these words will be turned into deeds."

Former President Clinton, who became the first U.S. leader to intervene in Northern Ireland and spurred Britain to negotiate with Sinn Fein, said outside his suburban New York home that the IRA move was "potentially the biggest thing to happen in this peace process since the Good Friday agreement."

Clinton said the peace process, begun in 1993, "sure has taken a long time and it's not done yet. But this is a big day."

But analysts said the key line of the IRA text was simultaneously its most sweeping and its most broadly debatable.

The IRA said its members had been ordered "to assist the development of purely political and democratic programs through exclusively peaceful means" and "must not engage in any other activities whatsoever."

Adams said he thought the instruction for IRA members to avoid "any other activities" meant they should not engage in crime.

That has been a key issue for the British and Irish governments since December, when police accused a large IRA unit of taking the families of Northern Bank employees hostage and forcing them to clean out the bank's central Belfast vault.

Ed Moloney, a veteran Northern Ireland journalist and author of a history of the IRA, predicted the group would keep running criminal rackets and exert paramilitary muscle within its Catholic neighborhood strongholds. "They haven't gone away," he said.

But Adams said the IRA move should "remove any excuse" for avoiding direct negotiations between his party, which represents most Catholics in Northern Ireland, and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, which represents most Protestants.

Paisley, whose community bore the brunt of IRA violence, accused the IRA of repeatedly issuing hollow, deceptive statements. He said he didn't plan to cooperate with Sinn Fein any time soon.

"The history of the past decade in Northern Ireland is littered with IRA statements which we were told were `historic,' `ground-breaking' and `seismic.' These same statements were followed by the IRA reverting to type and carrying out more of its horrific murders and squalid criminality," Paisley said.

"We will judge the IRA's bona fides over the next months and years based on its behavior and activity."

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