IRA vows to step up disarmament to save accord

Ahead of a crucial weekend, the British and Irish seek ways to limit damage to the peace accord.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The terrorist attacks in the US are triggering increasing pressure on the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to disarm.

"The world changed last week. We need to close a chapter in our own history, on the armed struggle of the IRA, and move on," says Mairtin O'Muilleoir, an ex-councilor of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing. "There's a global debate under way, and we need to be on the right side."

The peace process here stalled almost six weeks ago, after the IRA refused to accede to Ulster Unionist demands and provide a timetable to lay down weapons. But last week's attacks in the US have stepped up pressure on the IRA to move much faster and further.

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Tim Pat Coogan, author of a history of the IRA, says that everything has changed forever, and that, if Irish republicans fail to respond, they risk losing vital support in the US and, electorally, south of the border in Ireland itself.

Meanwhile, In the words of Nobel peace prize-winner, John Hume, who this week announced his resignation as leader of the moderate Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party, it could mean "the removal of the gun from Irish politics forever."

On Wednesday, the IRA issued a statement saying it would intensify its talks with the Independent International Body on Decommissioning, a three-man panel set up by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

In its statement, the IRA voiced sympathy to the victims of the US attacks and pledged to accelerate progress toward resolving the arms issue, while saying that progress will be "directly influenced" by the other parties in the peace process, particularly the British government.

Greater US pressure for IRA decommissioning was evident even before last week's catastrophes, however.

Last month, three suspected IRA members were arrested while carrying false passports in Colombia, accused of helping train left-wing guerrillas in that country's civil war. The IRA has denieda connection. During their meeting in Belfast this week, President Bush's envoy, Richard Haass, told Sinn Fein firmly of the US government's foreign-policy and national-security interests in that region.

Sinn Fein sources insist their Irish-American friends have been at pains to make clear that they see no equivalence between the IRA's stand on decommissioning its weapons and the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

Almost since the day in August 1994 when the IRA announced "cessation of military operations," the focus of British and Protestant/unionist pressure has been to get the IRA to take another step and dispose of its weapons.

The IRA says the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, including a new beginning to policing in Northern Ireland and the dismantling of British military installations, will provide the political context for "complete and verifiable" disarming.

Loyalist paramilitary groups, while maintaining far smaller arsenals than the IRA's, because their targets were unarmed civilians, have been holding fire to see how far republicans would go, and have yet to decommission any weapons.

For more than five years, the IRA said that it had ended its campaign undefeated - and no undefeated army surrenders its weapons, it argued. It would not decommission "either by the back door or the front door," said its spokespeople, claiming that the issue had never been raised in any of the secret talks leading to the ceasefire.

The Irish republican tradition, even after an end to hostilities, has been to hold onto its weaponry, "just in case." After the bloody and unsuccessful 1798 rebellion against the British government, in which 20,000 peasant-soldiers died, survivors put their pikes into the thatched roofs of their cottages. The "pike in the thatch" mentality is still an underlying assumption mitigating against decommissioning - as is a belief in the powerful deterrent and defensive powers of a greased-up and intact arsenal of explosives and high-quality weaponry.

Some republicans also strongly suspect that their opponents' true priority was never decommissioning itself. They say unionists knew it was the single demand that would never be conceded and was being used to destroy the process by proxy.

Many of the IRA's most devastating weapons were not guns but arms, engineered using "low-tech" components such as farmyard fertilizer, fuel oil, icing sugar, and bottled gas canisters.

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), under leader David Trimble has not wavered in demanding that republicans decommission in return for its ministers continuing in the government with Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein says its electoral mandate is the only qualification for sharing power and insists it has no control over weapons - an argument dismissed by unionists who say the party is inextricably linked to the IRA.

Under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, unless sufficient progress has been made by tomorrow to reinstate Mr. Trimble as first minister, the British government must either suspend the agreement or order new elections.

The IRA has moved significantly in the past two years, agreeing to do what many had thought would never happen, to put its weapons, it says, "completely and verifiably beyond use."

Since last summer, the IRA has allowed repeated inspections of a number of its arms dumps by two independent examiners, one South African, the other Finnish. It has agreed in private, with the independent commission, on a method of decommissioning its weapons.

This leap forward took a battering when the British government re-imposed direct rule from London for 24 hours six weeks ago, but most analysts believe the IRA will reinstate its offer.

This is not enough for the Ulster Unionist Party, however. In their view, the IRA has not even reinstated its offer on the methodology of disarming, and still gives no date for the beginning of disarming. Dr. O'Hearn says that while pressure is mounting on the IRA, decommissioning alone will not resolve the conflict, which requires material political change.

Without decommissioning, however, that political change will prove elusive, says IRA historian Coogan, who adds that, irrespective of the political pressures now being exerted by Washington, decommissioning is the only way for the IRA to advance its ultimate target of a united Ireland.

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