By ALAN FREEMAN
Toronto Globe and Mail
August 02, 2005
The IRA announcement, called "a step of unparalleled magnitude" by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is expected to lead to renewal of stalled political talks on power sharing between Catholics and Protestants in the Northern Ireland assembly.
But first, the spotlight will focus on John de Chastelain, the retired Canadian general who has been trying for the past eight years to get the IRA and other paramilitary groups to get rid of their massive stockpile of explosives, automatic weapons, ammunition and other weapons.
"Come the hour, come the man. It's his moment in history," said Jonathan Moore, a lecturer in Irish politics at London Metropolitan University.
Moore said that de Chastelain, who heads the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, will face huge pressure from Protestant Unionists to prove that any arms destruction is verifiable. At the same time, he cannot be seen to be "humiliating" the IRA and its Catholic Republican political supporters, Moore said.
In its statement, the IRA said it would resume discussions with de Chastelain's commission to "put its arms beyond use in a way which will further enhance public confidence and to conclude this as quickly as possible." Some sources believe the decommissioning could begin as early as Monday.
The paramilitary group also said it would invite witnesses from Protestant and Catholic churches to see the arms decommissioning.
The IRA called a ceasefire in 1997, but always resisted declaring an end to its armed struggle to wrest Northern Ireland from Britain and reunite it with the republic to the south. Its spokesmen said it would use only peaceful means in future to pursue its ends.
Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, said the group is committed to "purely peaceful and democratic methods" in pursuing its goals.
Yet the statement said the IRA still believes "the armed struggle was entirely legitimate," and said it was "mindful of the sacrifices of our patriot dead." There was no promise to disband the organization.
The Protestant-dominated Democratic Unionist Party, led by firebrand Ian Paisley, said his party did not trust the IRA's statement and would believe its promise of disarmament when it saw concrete actions backing it up, noting that disarmament was supposed to have been completed five years ago under the Good Friday peace agreement.
"I think people will be very suspicious and skeptical until they see actions rather than words," Nelson McCausland, a Democratic Unionist assembly member, said in an interview from Belfast. "There have been so many similar statements in the past. . . . People will take a wait-and-see attitude."
McCausland conceded that deadly violence has declined, but said that in his constituency in North Belfast, it is far from peaceful. He noted there was rioting on July 12 involving Catholic demonstrators and the police that led to serious injuries. "With 30 years of Troubles and that legacy, it will take time."
Moore, the expert on Irish politics, said that the war for the IRA effectively ended with the ceasefire of 1997. But leaders of the paramilitary group, which numbers no more than 300 or 400 members, dragged their feet on formally denouncing violence until they were embarrassed over the past year by their alleged involvement in a massive bank heist in Belfast and in the pub slaying of Catholic Robert McCartney.
"The IRA covered it up," Moore said of the killing. "It disgusted a lot of people."
Other challenges remain, he said, including the participation of Sinn Fein in the administration of the police, which has long been seen as a Protestant bastion. "Will Sinn Fein join the police board? Will they encourage Catholics to join the police force?"
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