IRA says it is ending its violent ways

Announcement may end bloody chapter for Irish

Response is guarded

How group will prove disarmament unresolved

July 29, 2005|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - More than three decades after the start of a deadly struggle against British rule, the Irish Republican Army announced yesterday that it would give up its arms and fight solely in the political arena, potentially ending the bloodiest chapter in modern Irish history.

The IRA said it planned to lay down its weapons at 4 p.m. yesterday, a monumental development welcomed by virtually all quarters - but the announcement quickly followed with calls for proof.

More than 3,500 people - Catholics and Protestants - have been killed in the 36 years of fighting. The violence, at times, included bombings and the torching of homes and businesses, shootings of soldiers, assassinations of politicians, human crucifixions and firebombing of funeral processions. And yesterday's announcement did little to lessen the bitterness and distrust born of such violence.

Just how the IRA will prove that it is disposing of its weapons, tons of which are believed buried in bunkers in the Northern Ireland countryside, remains an unresolved, and potentially troublesome, issue.

Issue remains

The IRA has been fighting to unite the British territory of Northern Ireland, which has a Protestant majority, with the predominantly Catholic Republic of Ireland to the south, and nobody expects that issue has ended.

Nor, even while hailing the IRA announcement as true progress, did any leaders here say that, finally, "the troubles," as they have been known here, are over.

That guardedness seemed especially apparent by what was absent yesterday in Northern Ireland's capital, Belfast. Unlike when a cease-fire was announced in 1997 and the streets filled with flag-waving Catholics and Protestants, the Associated Press reported that no such excitement could be found yesterday, despite the message.

"All IRA units have been ordered to dump arms," the organization said in its statement, which was read on a DVD by a former IRA prisoner, Seanna Walsh, and distributed to reporters.

"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."

Gerry Adams, the public leader of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA - but in practicality the voice and face of the IRA campaign for decades - said the announcement yesterday was a declaration that a war had ended.

"There is a time to resist, to stand up and to confront the enemy by arms if necessary. In other words, unfortunately, there is a time for war," said Adams, who was a reputed senior IRA commander from the mid-1970s until May, when he reportedly stepped down from the seven-man IRA command. "There is also a time to engage, to reach out and put war behind us. This is that time."

Prime Minister Tony Blair said he welcomed the announcement but cautioned that the words have to be matched by deeds.

"I welcome the recognition that the only route to political change lies in exclusively peaceful and democratic means," he said from his office yesterday. "This is a step of unparalleled magnitude in the recent history of Northern Ireland."

Later, he said: "This may be the day on which, finally, after all these false dawns and dashed hopes, peace replaced war, politics replaces terror on the island of Ireland."

The IRA's announcement marked a major advance from its agreement to a truce in place since 1997 and the relative peace that has held since the Good Friday Accord of 1998.

Thousands killed

Over the years, the IRA killed about 1,800 people in its campaign and maimed thousands more, among them police officers, soldiers and politicians along with scores of innocent bystanders.

In turn, Protestant Unionists killed hundreds of Catholics, often in brutal murders as revenge killings or "examples."

The IRA's last major violent gasp came during a 17-month stretch in the mid-1990s that included massive truck bombings in London and Manchester, England.

Relatively minor clashes between both groups continued after the Good Friday Accord was signed. But the accord held strong enough so that the peace process did not completely unravel.

It called for a power-sharing government between Catholics and Protestants, an uneasy arrangement that broke down in 2002 over charges of spying and disputes over the IRA's not disarming and disbanding.

Protestant officials and IRA leaders have long held a mutual mistrust, and yesterday Ian Paisley, the leader of the Protestants and the man at the other end of negotiations with Adams, expressed that distrust again.

He said the announcement was void of remarks by IRA commanders to end the criminal activities - most notably bank robberies - that, along with contributions from Irish-Americans, among others, have long funded the organization.

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