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IRA No Longer Terror Threat, Monitors Say

A report on adherence to Northern Ireland's peace accord finds the group `set on a political strategy.' Hopes rise for reviving the legislature.

October 05, 2006|Janet Stobart | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — The Irish Republican Army has disbanded its units that bought and built weapons, stopped training recruits and ceased intelligence gathering, committing itself to a path of peace, says a periodic report made public Wednesday by a panel monitoring peace efforts in Northern Ireland.

The militants have, in effect, closed down their paramilitary and criminal activities, said John Alderdice, a member of the Independent Monitoring Commission who presented the report to the media in Belfast, the Northern Irish provincial capital.

"Three years ago, it was the most sophisticated and potentially the most dangerous of the [paramilitary] groups, possessed of the largest arsenal of guns and other material," the report says. "It is now firmly set on a political strategy, eschewing terrorism and other forms of crime."

Politicians and government leaders welcomed the report as offering hope for breaking a political logjam and opening the door to a lasting and constructive peace in the beleaguered British province. British officials have imposed a deadline of late next month for talks aimed at ending the political deadlock over Northern Ireland's future.

"The IRA's campaign is over," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair in a statement broadcast Wednesday afternoon. "There is now consensus across all main players in the politics of Northern Ireland that change can only come through persuasion and not through violence of any sort."

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern welcomed "the conclusion that there is convincing evidence of the Provisional IRA's continuing commitment to an exclusively political path."

The commission's reports have focused on the IRA and its offshoots as well as the activities of Protestant paramilitary groups and the two sides' violations of an uneasy peace since the 1998 Good Friday agreement. That accord, brokered with U.S. help, brought largely pro-British Protestant and pro-republican Roman Catholic political parties together after three decades of terrorism and sought to create a Northern Irish home-rule parliament and a power-sharing executive.

There is no guarantee that members of dissident groups, such as the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA, would cease their campaigns of terrorism, the report says. Protestant loyalist groups, such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Loyalist Volunteer Force, also were still "involved in violent activities," it says.

However, the report's findings for the most part are positive enough to give momentum to negotiations planned next week in Scotland to revive the Northern Ireland Assembly, which was suspended in 2002.

"It's very, very clear that the republicans have kept to all their commitments," said Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political ally. "A deal could be done tonight."

Protestant leaders were less sanguine about the prospects of quickly restoring the parliament. The Rev. Ian Paisley, head of the Democratic Unionist Party and chief opponent of Sinn Fein's participation in a Northern Irish government, demanded further proof of the IRA's commitment to demilitarize and end the criminal activity believed to have funded its rebellion.

He called for Sinn Fein and the IRA "to now support the police, the courts and the rule of law."

The monitors' report alludes to still-unsolved crimes such as the April slaying of Denis Donaldson, a former Sinn Fein official who had spied for Britain. Paisley said there were "real and serious doubts about the murder of Denis Donaldson, and this report has not ruled out the possibility that the Provisional IRA were behind the killing."

Other observers said Wednesday that although the report raised hopes that political progress could be made in Northern Ireland, that did not mean the parliament would be revived as soon as next month.

Paul Bew, a historian at Queen's University in Belfast and a longtime watcher of the peace process, said the report showed real progress.

"One very important point is that there is no more recruitment," he said. "It shows that this is an army in decay."

"It really looks as if the command-and-control structure which remains will be used to impose a political direction," Bew said.

The crucial point of any agreement would be the acceptance by republicans of the province's police force. The present-day Police Service of Northern Ireland replaced the predominantly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary, or RUC, after the 1998 pact.

Catholics historically were reluctant to join the RUC, and in the days of violence before the 1998 agreement those who did were often targeted for reprisal.

Bew predicted that "policing will be the new issue." Eventually the republican side will soften toward the new force, he said, but maybe not in time for the Nov. 24 deadline imposed by Peter Hain, Britain's secretary for Northern Ireland, for the resumption of the legislature.

Hain called the report a "unique opportunity for this generation of politicians to reach that final solution, an opportunity the government hopes the parties will now seize and not miss a fantastic window."

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