A senior figure in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) is indicating the group is willing to destroy its weapons, with independent witnesses, over the next two years.
In what British government ministers see as a highly significant development in the Northern Ireland peace process, Padraic Wilson, an influential IRA commander currently in prison, says "voluntary decommissioning" would be "a natural development" following elections to be held next week.
Mr. Wilson's comments to a reporter for London's Financial Times were made inside the walls of Belfast's Maze Prison, where he is serving a 24-year sentence for bombing and other terrorist offenses. He is recognized by some 200 republican prisoners currently held at the Maze as their senior commander.
The prospect now being heralded by Wilson is for secretly located dumps of arms and explosives - many in the Irish Republic near the border with Northern Ireland - to be destroyed by the IRA, with independent observers on hand.
Weapons currently held in secret caches include rocket launchers, semiautomatic rifles, shotguns, handguns, and what British security sources estimate as two tons of explosives with detonators.
Initial responses by Northern Ireland's Protestant political leaders to Wilson's remarks were guarded. An adviser to Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble said: "This falls well short of what we have been demanding, which is an early handover of terrorist weapons."
Protestant leaders continue to argue that before Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, is allowed to join in the planned Northern Ireland political assembly, it must begin handing in its weapons. Mr. Trimble also says an early weapons handover must be a precondition of the release of IRA prisoners.
Last week, however, Prime Minister Tony Blair told Trimble he was not willing to concede to his demands. "I cannot renegotiate the peace agreement," he said.
It now appears that a decommissioning formula close to that outlined by Wilson will be acceptable to London and Dublin.
The idea is that arms decommissioning should happen as part of several interdependent arrangements intended to secure a lasting peace. Wilson speaks of decommissioning taking place over two years.
In that time the Northern Ireland assembly would be sitting, cross-border institutions would begin work, and reforms to Northern Ireland's police force would be implemented.
A source close to Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam said yesterday that the IRA's apparent shift of stance on arms decommissioning was "a significant and welcome development."
In a move aimed at easing Protestant anxieties about the early release of IRA prisoners, Dr. Mowlam yesterday put forward legislation allowing for the victims of terrorist violence, and their families, to be given early warning that terrorists were about to be set free.
Earlier this month, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams was reported to have told Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, head of the body charged with overseeing weapons decommissioning, that the IRA might be ready to destroy caches of its own arms.
British government sources say Wilson's comments appear to be in line with that offer. In his interview with the Financial Times, Wilson also said Sinn Fein should be allowed to play a part in the planned Northern Ireland assembly on the same terms as other political parties.
The newspaper says the initiative for the interview came from Sinn Fein, and had been approved in advance by the Northern Ireland Office in Belfast and Maze Prison officers.
Earlier this year, Wilson was among IRA inmates who met Mowlam and later indicated to Sinn Fein and IRA officials outside the prison that the peace process should be allowed to proceed. His latest remarks therefore carry authority.