IRA said to reject disarmament demands

Senior source quoted as calling Blair `unrealistic'


DUBLIN, Ireland - The Irish Republican Army was reported yesterday to have delivered a sharp rebuff to demands for its disarmament by Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, in what was taken here as a significant setback to efforts to cement Northern Ireland's frail peace.

Word of the IRA's action emerged on Irish state television, which quoted an unidentified senior source in the guerrilla movement as saying it would not accept Blair's "unrealistic demands."

The statement reinforced remarks Friday by leaders of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, whose president, Gerry Adams, said republicans had been angered because Blair focused on the IRA, not on Protestant paramilitary organizations.

In the parlance of Northern Ireland, a British province, republicans are those, mostly Catholics, who want closer ties with the Irish Republic. Unionists, mostly Protestants, want Northern Ireland to retain strong British ties.

Britain suspended the power-sharing local Assembly for Northern Ireland on Monday after it had been threatened with collapse by a decision of Protestant unionist politicians to resign and to end cooperation with their Catholic republican counterparts.

While Protestant protest had been growing, the immediate reason given was evidence that the IRA was still engaged in military activity while Sinn Fein participated in government.

In a surprise visit to Belfast on Thursday, Blair used unusually forthright language to demand that the IRA disarm. Yesterday's statement was the first public IRA response.

"There is no parallel track left. The fork in the road has finally come," Blair said in his speech. "We cannot carry on with the IRA half in, half out of this process. Remove the threat of violence, and the peace process is on an unstoppable path."

Blair's speech was billed in London as his most important on Northern Ireland since the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, which paved the way for establishing the power-sharing government. The reimposition of Britain's rule deepened the province's crisis, with violence in the streets and paralysis in the power-sharing government.

In its statement Thursday, the IRA said it was not a threat to peace in Northern Ireland.

In his speech, Blair sought to balance his demands on the IRA with criticism of the loyalist paramilitary groups that stand accused by republicans of perpetuating attacks on Catholic neighborhoods in Belfast.

But Adams took issue with what he called Blair's one-sidedness. "I think the republican anger will be that the focus is on one armed group," Adams said.

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