N. Ireland paramilitary groups told to disband

British premier says violence `intolerable'

July 25, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LONDON - Prime Minister Tony Blair, decrying the persistence of violence in Northern Ireland, called yesterday on the province's paramilitary groups to disband and warned that the government would become more "rigorous" in punishing them for violating their cease-fire claims.

"It is no longer sufficient just that there should be no terrorist violence," Blair told the House of Commons. "We have to be clear that preparations for violence have also ceased."

He said that while no one expected the 1998 agreement to bring peace to the long-conflicted province overnight, it was "intolerable" that violence continued to block progress four years later.

Although the large-scale organized killing that took more than 3,600 lives over three decades has ended, the summer has brought an upsurge of riots, shootings, gasoline bomb attacks and punishment-beatings.

The government believes some of the violence is being coordinated by the Irish Republican Army and counterpart Protestant guerrilla groups, all of which pledged four years ago to maintain cease-fires and abandon systematic mayhem.

Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid told parliament that the government was sending 250 extra police officers and soldiers to flashpoint areas and examining changes in criminal law, bail arrangements and police powers to make it easier for authorities to prosecute acts of terror and organized crime.

He added, "In reviewing the cease-fires, I will give particular weight to any substantiated information that a paramilitary organization is engaged in training, targeting, acquisition or development of arms or weapons, or any similar preparations for a terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland or elsewhere."

In an interview afterward, he explained that he was empowered to bring sanctions against any groups violating cease-fire terms.

A senior Bush administration official, in a telephone interview from Washington, said: "This is a significant development. The statements from Prime Minister Blair and John Reid reflect a strong feeling that the time has come to complete the transition from an era of paramilitaries to an era of politics."

In a White House statement, President Bush expressed support for Blair, saying: "Paramilitaries must end their violent activities, cease all preparations for them, and recognize the political process as the only valid vehicle for change. Those who cling to the violent ways of the past cannot be allowed to derail Northern Ireland's progress towards a more peaceful future."

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