BELFAST — In what is being described as a historic move, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) on Thursday announced an end its armed campaign to end British rule in Northern Ireland.
The announcement was read by a former IRA prisoner, and stated “All IRA units have been ordered to dump arms. All Volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programs through exclusively peaceful means. Volunteers must not engage in any other activities whatsoever.”
The statement called for two independent witnesses – a Catholic and Protestant clergyman – to act as independent witnesses to the destruction or “decommissioning” of the IRA’s arsenal.
The statement described an internal consensus that the goal of a united Ireland could be now achieved through conventional political means, but reaffirmed the IRA view that “the armed struggle was entirely legitimate.”
No direct reference was made to alleged IRA criminality, which emerged as a serious issue hindering political negotiations over the past year.
The statement did not say that the IRA was about to disband.
The statement came after “an unprecedented internal discussion and consultation process with IRA units and Volunteers” after Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams called on the IRA to pursue purely peaceful means in a pre-election speech in early April.
Adams’ request came after a trying few months for Sinn Féin, the political party linked to the IRA.
IRA members carried out the killing of Belfast Catholic Robert McCartney on 31 January – which called into question the organization’s role as defender-oppressor of Catholic-nationalist enclaves in Northern Ireland’s urban areas.
On 20 December 2004, €33.5 million was stolen from a Belfast bank, an operation the Irish and British prime ministers and the police in Northern Ireland blamed on the IRA. Although no-one has yet been charged with the robbery, the fallout brought the IRA criminal network under renewed scrutiny.
Although Sinn Féin gained seats in the recent UK general election, the party’s momentum has stalled recently, with the rival nationalist Social, Democratic, and Labour Party (SDLP) retaining three seats at Westminster.
Reports over the weekend suggested that Adams, Sinn Féin chief negotiator Martin McGuinness, and Martin Ferris, a Sinn Féin member of parliament in the Republic of Ireland, had all resigned their positions on the IRA Army Council as a prelude to Thursday’s statement.
All three men deny being IRA members, though McGuinness has acknowledged involvement in the past.
Reaction to the statement has been cautiously optimistic, with unionist leaders in particular referring to the IRA history of making dramatic statements that have not been followed up by equally groundbreaking action.
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Ian Paisley greeted the statement with skepticism, saying: “We will judge the IRA’s bona fides over the next months and years based on its behavior and activity.”
However, Paisley did make a reference to the future, a tacit acknowledgement that the IRA statement had the potential to facilitate future engagement with Sinn Féin.
New Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Reg Empey, said it would take time to convince the people of Northern Ireland that the IRA statement was more than just rhetoric.
A joint statement by the Irish and British prime ministers said if the IRA’s words “are borne out by actions, it will be a momentous and historic development”.
Early on Friday, the British government announced the dismantling of an army tower in the south Armagh region, an IRA stronghold near the border with the Republic of Ireland.
Sinn Féin President Adams said the move was a “courageous and confident initiative” and called on all parties to seize the moment.
US President Bush remarked: “This IRA 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.”
Northern Ireland’s transition from violent conflict to peaceful political engagement has been marred by a stop-and-start process, rooted in a recalcitrant attitude toward disarmament by the IRA, and in opposition to the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement by the DUP.
The agreement maintained Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK, while promising nationalist-unionist power-sharing in a devolved Executive, with membership taken from an elected 108-member assembly.
These devolved institutions have been suspended since October 2002, amid allegations of IRA espionage at Stormont, the putative seat of the administration.
It is still unclear when those talks will resume.
A so-called “decontamination” period has been mentioned, with two quarterly Independent Monitoring Commission Reports necessary to demonstrate that the IRA has complied with its own directives, as well as the reports on the destruction of weapons by the Catholic and Protestant clergymen. This would mean that substantive negotiations would become a realistic possibility before next spring.
Optimistic sources believe that some IRA decommissioning could take place within days. However, it is unclear whether photographic evidence of the act, as required by the DUP, will be provided.Show