IRA offers to decommission arms

LONDON, MAY 7. In a historic move that has brought permanent peace in Northern Ireland within grasp, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) has offered to ``put its arms beyond use'' and has said it will open up its arms dumps to inspection by independent observers.

The IRA's statement came hours after the British and Irish Governments announced their plans to get the implementation of the Northern Ireland peace process back on track. Both Governments set a deadline of June 2001 for the IRA and all other paramilitary organisations to decommission their weapons.

The IRA has agreed on Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa, a prominent South African trade unionist, and Mr. Martti Athisaari, the former Finnish President, as the two independent observers who will be taken to the IRA's arms dumps to verify the quantity of arms and explosives, and who will ensure that these dumps are sealed so that the arms cannot be used. ``The contents of a number of arms dumps will be inspected by agreed third parties,'' the IRA said, adding, ``the dumps will be re-inspected regularly to ensure that the weapons have remained secure.''

The move has been widely welcomed, with the U.S. President, Mr. Bill Clinton, describing it as ``a truly historic step'' and a ``very good day for the people of Northern Ireland.'' The offer appears to mark a decisive step it the IRA's history as an armed organisation formed in the early part of the 20th century to fight the British occupation of Ireland.

The IRA leadership seems to have taken a major step towards ending its existence as an armed organisation, and instead using political methods to achieve its eventual goal of the reunification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland. Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, will now be the main voice of Irish republicanism. The Sinn Fein leader, Mr. Gerry Adams, said the IRA's statement was ``unprecedented in the history of Irish republicanism''.

The IRA's announcement is part of a deal that was worked out after intense behind-the-door negotiations between Sinn Fein leaders and the British and Irish Governments. One of the problems the IRA had with laying down its weapons was that it did not want to do so in a way that implied surrendering, or which gave the impression that it had been defeated. To get over this, the IRA would formally retain control of its weapons dumps, but these would be sealed, and placed under international inspection. The British Government also agreed that its forces in Northern Ireland would be reduced.

The major question is now whether the main Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, will accept the IRA's announcement, and agree to sit in the Northern Ireland Government with Sinn Fein Ministers. The British Government had earlier suspended Northern Ireland's power-sharing Government after the Ulster Unionists had refused to share power with Sinn Fein until the IRA surrendered its weapons.

What the IRA has offered is clearly not a surrender of weapons, and it remains to be seen how Ulster Unionists hardliners will react to it. The Ulster Unionist leader, Mr. David Trimble, will have to consult his party's decision-making body before deciding what to do, and his initial response was cautious. ``There are some interesting things in this statement. It does appear to break some new ground,'' he said.