IRA agrees to arms inspection

Major concession could help break deadlock on peace

Third-party checks planned

Clinton calls move as `significant step'

Protestants are wary

IRA breaks the deadlock, agrees to arms inspections

May 07, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Gunmen turned peacemakers yesterday as the Irish Republican Army announced it will open arms dumps to inspectors in a landmark measure designed to revive Northern Ireland's sputtering peace process.

While falling short of long-standing demands by Northern Ireland's Protestant political leaders for an outright weapons handover, the IRA's arms inspection offer was potentially the most important step taken by the paramilitary group since its 1997 cease-fire transformed the province's social and political landscape.

"For our part, the IRA leadership is committed to resolving the issue of arms," the group said in a statement, its most detailed yet on the vexing issue of how to get the gun out of Northern Irish politics.

The province's leading Protestant politician, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, said the IRA's statement "appeared to break new ground," but called for more clarification.

The IRA's unprecedented move to give outsiders access to what is literally the group's buried treasure - weapons - came a day after the British and Irish governments announced ambitious plans to restore Northern Ireland's suspended local legislature by May 22. That was the initial target date for the paramilitaries to have handed in all their weapons, according to the historic April 1998 Good Friday peace accord.

But with time running out, the governments postponed until June of 2001 full implementation of such measures as paramilitary disarmament, reform of Northern Ireland's Protestant-dominated police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and reducing British forces in the province.

The carefully orchestrated moves by the gunmen and the governments appeared designed to break the arms deadlock that for months has stalled politics, peace and reconciliation among the British province's majority Protestants and minority Roman Catholics.

In February, the province's 9-week-old assembly saw its powers suspended and rule from London restored over Northern Ireland, which harbors wounds from a 30-year terror war that left more than 3,600 dead.

The latest breakthrough occurred after a final weekend push by the governments, but the groundwork may have been laid after near-misses to solve the problem in December and February.

In its statement, the IRA appeared to break new ground, and potentially, break the deadlock.

`The IRA leadership will initiate a process that will completely and verifiably put IRA arms beyond use," the group said in a statement. "We will do it in such a way as to avoid risk to the public and misappropriation by others to ensure maximum public confidence."

The group said "there is no threat to the peace process from the IRA," and stated it would resume contact with the international panel that has sought to oversee the weapons hand-over in the province.

Third parties

In what it termed "a confidence-building measure to confirm that our weapons remain secure," the IRA offered to have third parties inspect "the contents of a number of our arms dumps."

`The dumps will be re-inspected regularly to ensure that the weapons have remained silent," the group said.

The British and Irish governments selected two inspectors to monitor the arms dumps: former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari and ex-African National Congress Secretary-General Cyril Ramaphosa.

Ahtisaari, serving as a European Union envoy, helped broker the accord that ended NATO's air war against Yugoslavia last year. Ramaphosa chaired the Constitutional Assembly responsible for drafting South Africa's post-apartheid constitution.

The international panel overseeing paramilitary disarmament in the province will receive reports from the two inspectors. The IRA promised to re-establish contactwith the panel.

President Clinton called the IRA pledge "a significant step toward realizing the full promise of the Good Friday Accord," in a written statement.

"These developments offer renewed hope to the people of Northern Ireland that politics will once and for all be pursued through exclusively political means," Clinton said.

Trimble under pressure

Now that the IRA has delivered its latest offer, the pressure builds on Trimble and the Ulster Unionists, who have to be willing to resume serving in government with Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, in order for the local assembly to regain power.

But Trimble will have to sell the new initiatives to the increasingly anxious rank and file in his party's 860-strong ruling council. Last month, Trimble survived a leadership challenge in which his opponent received 43 percent of the vote.

Trimble said of the IRA's statement, "There are some positive aspects to it, some very positive aspects, but there are also some questions that we have already raised with people that we want to just tease out."

Asked if he felt the May 22 target date would be met for restoring the local governmental institutions, which include an assembly and power-sharing executive, Trimble told reporters in Belfast, "It is too serious a matter to speak about the gut-feeling or knee-jerk reaction. We have wanted to see this process succeed. We have wanted to see it built on solid, secure foundations."

`Jump forward'

Peter Mandelson, the Northern Ireland secretary, called the IRA's statement a "jump forward."

"We have the potential to break the deadlock and impasse," Mandelson said.

Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein's president, described the IRA's initiative as "unprecedented" and noted that it came on the 19th anniversary of the death of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands.

"This is not just the dry turning of an historical page," he said. "It is something that is emotional and painful, blood and sinew, life and death."

The New York Times News Service contributed to this article.

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