LONDON — In a historic bid to end Northern Ireland's three-decade armed conflict, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams called on the Irish Republican Army on Monday to give up its guns to save the Good Friday peace process.
Adams issued the call to party activists in Belfast, Northern Ireland, as Sinn Fein negotiator Martin McGuinness delivered the message to Irish American supporters in New York--choreographed steps by the IRA's political wing apparently designed to prepare their base for disarmament.
"We have put to the IRA the view that if it could make a groundbreaking move on the arms issue, this could save the peace process from collapse and transform the situation," Adams said.
He called on the British government and Protestant political parties to respond with "generosity and vision" to what is clearly a difficult decision for the IRA. Without mentioning dissidents opposed to the peace process, Adams appealed to Irish republicans to remain united behind Sinn Fein and the IRA.
"It is a time for clear heads and brave hearts," Adams said.
Northern Ireland, a British province, has been divided for decades between "unionists," primarily Protestants, who favor continued association with Britain, and "republicans," primarily Roman Catholics, who want to be part of Ireland.
British officials and Sinn Fein members said it was unlikely that Adams and McGuinness would have made the transatlantic announcements without prior agreement by the IRA to begin disarming. In 1997, when Adams and McGuinness declared that they had urged the gunmen to call a cease-fire, the IRA did so the following day.
Nonetheless, Protestant leaders responded to the announcement cautiously, aware of how many times the peace process has come apart since the signing of the 1998 Good Friday accord.
"We have been at pains to state that words are not enough--we want to see action," said Michael McGimpsey, a leading member of the pro-British Ulster Unionist Party. "However, it would be begrudging of me not to state that there are promising parts in this statement that may be heralding further steps."
Leaders of the main Protestant parties resigned from Northern Ireland's local power-sharing government last week to protest the IRA's failure to put its weapons "beyond use," as it had promised in May 2000.
Under the terms of the peace accord, the provincial government cannot survive without the participation of both Protestants and Catholics. Barring a breakthrough, the resignations will become permanent and the government will collapse at midnight Thursday. If the IRA wants to prevent the return of direct British rule to the province, it will have to take steps before then.
The clandestine group is unlikely to do anything publicly, as its supporters have long regarded disarmament as an attempt to humiliate the IRA. They have argued that the guns were no longer in use and do not pose a threat. They also believe that Britain and its Protestant allies, having failed to defeat the IRA, have no right to demand surrender.
Adams took great pains to assure his supporters that an IRA agreement to disarm would not represent bowing to Unionist pressure but would be a strategic decision to continue pursuing a united Ireland through peaceful means.
McGimpsey, however, insisted that Sinn Fein and the IRA "are clearly responding to pressure. They have run out of road and time on decommissioning" their weapons. In a printed statement, he said: "Our pressure on the Republican movement is working. Our strategy is working."
In fact, the most effective pressure probably has come from the United States, which has made it clear that it has no stomach for armed groups in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon. Even many of the IRA's Irish American supporters seem to have lost heart after the attacks, which left more than 5,000 civilians dead or missing.
Sinn Fein and the IRA also lost a lot of credibility in August, when three of their militants were arrested in Colombia and accused of helping guerrillas fighting the government there. They deny the charges, but McGuinness admitted Monday that one of the three was a Sinn Fein representative in Cuba.
The U.S., British and Irish governments have been telling Sinn Fein that now was the last chance to salvage the peace process. If the power-sharing government collapsed, supporters of the Good Friday agreement would be unlikely to find enough Protestant votes to put it together again.
If the IRA begins to disarm, it is most likely to eliminate weapons caches already known to inspectors. Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, head of an international commission established to monitor disarmament, has demanded to witness the destruction of any weapons.
The question then is whether what has been done is sufficient to persuade the Ulster Unionists--the largest Protestant party--to return to government with Sinn Fein.