"Breakthrough" is a term that's been used - and abused - in the difficult Northern Ireland peace process, often heralding a furious spurt of activity between months of recrimination and deadlock.
But a weekend announcement by the Irish Republican Army marks a genuine step toward removing guns and explosives from the province's politics.
On Saturday, the IRA pledged to put its arms "beyond use" and agreed to open its secret arsenals to regular inspections.
Decommissioning paramilitary weapons has been one of the thorniest issues in the peace process, aimed at ending 30 years of violence between pro-British "unionists," mainly Protestants, and mainly Catholic "republicans," who envision uniting with the Republic of Ireland. Unionists have long insisted the IRA commit to an arms handover.
The announcement followed weeks of secret talks directed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern. On Friday, the British and Irish leaders unexpectedly unveiled a peace package that includes reconvening Northern Ireland's power-sharing, self-rule government later this month. The assembly and its executive council were suspended in mid-February over the IRA's previous refusal to budge on the weapons issue.
In addition, the British government has confirmed that a May 22 deadline to complete the decommissioning process will be postponed for a year.
President Clinton on Saturday welcomed the breakthrough and praised Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political ally, for "reaching out" to Northern Ireland's unionist community, which is mainly Protestant.
The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and other opponents of the peace process have said they do not accept the IRA's promise. But many analysts see the move as a historic development that will put heavy pressure on mainstream Protestant politicians to accept the new peace formula.
Arthur Aughey, a political analyst at the University of Ulster in Belfast, notes that the IRA stated its members were ready to put their weapons "completely and verifiably beyond use." "By that, the IRA means sealing their arsenals and agreeing to inspection by third parties, under the authority of Gen. John de Chastelain," Mr. Aughey says. General de Chastelain, a Canadian, heads the agency charged with overseeing arms decommissioning by all of Northern Ireland's paramilitary groups.
Aughey notes that this arrangement "fell short of the direct arms handover" long demanded by unionist politicians. For that reason, he says, "much work" is still needed "to convince unionists that the IRA's war [against British rule] is over."
Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble, first minister of the suspended government, gave the IRA statement a cautious welcome. "There are some interesting things in it," he said. "It does appear to break new ground." Describing the statement as having "positive aspects," he added that there were "some questions ... we want to just tease out."
Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson said that the IRA statement offers a basis on which to reopen the province's assembly on May 22. Speaking to the BBC on Sunday he said, "There is a real historic chance.... I don't think these are conditions that we can reproduce in the future if we do not seize this opportunity now."
The IRA says it will soon make a "confidence-building measure" to "confirm that its weapons remain secure." Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari and Cyril Ramaphosa, former secretary-general of African National Congress in South Africa, have been named as inspectors to verify that the IRA's weapons are secure at a number of arms depots.
Mr. Adams said Saturday that the IRA had taken "an emotional and painful step.
"I know there have been some who have been skeptical about whether republicans, the IRA in particular, were really interested in [the peace] process," he said. "I think the statement shows that they are."
For Mr. Trimble, the days up to May 22 promise to be among the most difficult in his political life. He must not only convince his party's ruling council that the IRA's promise can be relied on, and that putting weapons "beyond use" is an adequate substitute for surrendering them. He must also persuade his party to accept other contentious aspects of the peace process, such as plans to reform the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the heavily Protestant Northern Ireland police force.
Moderate unionists, like Sam Foster, a member of the suspended Northern Ireland government, take a constructive view of the IRA statement. "The average Ulsterman wants peace and quiet and good government, but when you have people you have never trusted before, it is very difficult," he says.
"The IRA have gone further than they ever have. This is a positive statement, and we trust that it will be [to the] the welfare and benefit of all of the people of Northern Ireland."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society