BELFAST — Northern Ireland moved a step closer to lasting peace yesterday, with an historic announcement by Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams that he has officially asked the IRA to begin scrapping its weapons.
The 11th-hour announcement comes at time when the ruling Catholic-Protestant government was on the brink of collapse. Disarming would represent an about-face for the Irish Republican Army, whose own code of honor metes out death to any member relinquishing a weapon before the dream of one Ireland is achieved.
"It is a time for clear heads and brave hearts," says Mr. Adams, president of the Irish Republican Army's political wing. "The IRA must stand out as an example of a people's army, in touch with the people, responsive to their needs and enjoying their genuine allegiance and support."
An announcement from the IRA was expected within 24 hours. Analysts say it is highly unlikely Adams would have spoken without being assured of the IRA's cooperation.
The question remains, however, whether the
anouncement will be enough to satisfy demands from the main Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, who want to retain links with Britain.
Three Ulster Unionist ministers in the experimental power-sharing government in Belfast resigned last week in protest over the IRA's slow pace toward decommissioning. Their resignation threatened the continued existence of Northern Ireland's joint Protestant-Catholic government, which was set up by the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.
Facing a decision Thursday by Britain that could have mothballed the Protestant-Catholic ruling coalition and reimposed direct British rule, last-ditch talks aimed at salvaging the beleaguered peace process were held. They included talks involving Adams and the British government on what concessions London might make to reciprocate an historic move on decommissioning.
Momentum had been building for a move on disarmament, especially after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States triggered a war against terrorism and ensured pariah status for anyone linked to violence against civilians.
Paul Arthur, a professor of politics at the University of Ulster, said at the weekend that it made no sense for the IRA to hold back from crossing the Rubicon now. "Fifteen years ago, the republican movement indicated its increasing emphasis on the political way forward. "When it did so, it entered a historical funnel which - although it had a wide entrance - inevitably led to a narrow mouth when it would be time to make this decision. The logic of that move has driven the IRA inexorably towards decommissioning its weapons."
In 30 years of violence, 3,500 people have died in Northern Ireland. Although widescale violence subsided after the Good Friday accord, the agreement has been beleaguered by disputes over IRA arms, police reform and Britain's military presence.
Ordinary people here, weary of repeated crises, are hoping that this time, the hope of a lasting peace will be fulfilled.
The heart of the IRA's dilemma has lain in its traditional opposition to decommissioning, in its founding principles, its history, in how it interprets its role over the last 30 years of violence and whether it can move toward decommissioning without causing a split within its ranks.
Previous discussions on beginning dismarmament by decommissioning one tranche of the IRA arsenal had drawn criticism from Protestants. Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble warned that he would demand that all IRA weapons be decommissioned by February 2002. Jeffrey Donaldson, a hard-line Ulster Unionist MP for Lagan Valley, said last week that "all of the arms have to be dealt with, and if they are not dealt with to our satisfaction, within a reasonable timeframe, then we'll have to take action again. We have withdrawn our ministers twice, and we reserve the right to withdraw them again."
Heightening the possibility of decommissioning was a growing belief within the IRA that, without further use of IRA weapons, Sinn Fein could create a political and electoral context for eventual reunification with the Republic of Ireland to the south. A move toward permanently decommissioning its weapons indicates the IRA's confidence in the peace process and is a sign that it believes its ultimate goal can be reached through exclusively political means.
By asking the present generation of IRA leadership to voluntarily give up its weapons, the British government and the Ulster Unionists have asked it to break faith with its past.
If traditional Irish republicanism can be described as partly an act of faith as well as a pragmatic political movement, then decommissioning could be described as the ultimate blasphemy.
IRA rules, contained in the so-called "Green Book," which approximates its bible, stipulates only one punishment for anyone handing over its weapons before Irish unity is achieved: In the absence of military defeat, that punishment, after due court martial, is death.
Only a secret "Army Convention" (a delegate meeting of representatives from the IRA's units throughout Ireland) can authorize a change in those rules.
Before the announcement, there had been much speculation that such a Convention had already been held or was about to be held.
The arguments that would be made at such a meeting are clear.
Some IRA members would argue that lives were lost to procure weapons. Many of its members spent years in jail when arrested in the process of importing weapons. The guns, explosives and other material now holed-up in IRA arsenals are their legacy to future generations in the struggle to rid the country of any vestige of British rule.
The IRA is being asked to hand over its weapons without having accomplished its ultimate goal of one Ireland, and without suffering a military defeat. When the IRA announced the complete cessation of its military operations in 1994, it did so undefeated by the British.
On the other hand, the Irish peace process was partly created by Sinn Fein in the realization that neither the IRA nor the British state could defeat each other, and that a political solution was the only way. Having helped to create the Good Friday Agreement, the "doves" within the republican movement could argue that they would hurt their own strategy by refusing to decommission - and give unionists an excuse to try and destroy the peace greement.
Material from wire services was used in this report.