International arms monitors said on Monday the Irish Republican Army had proposed a way to put its weapons “completely and verifiably beyond use,” potentially breaking a long impasse in the Northern Ireland peace process.
The body overseeing guerrilla disarmament in Northern Ireland said in a statement: “Based on our discussions with the IRA representative we believe this proposal initiates a process that will put IRA arms completely and verifiably beyond use.”
The International Commission on Decommissioning, headed by Canadian General John de Chastelain, said the proposal was put forward in a recent meeting, but he gave no further details of how the IRA would dispose of its arms.
Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary, John Reid, told reporters: “I believe it provides the basis and the potential for rapidly resolving the arms issue.”
The issue of guerrilla disarmament has brought peace efforts in the troubled, British-ruled province close to collapse, with pro-British, Protestant politicians refusing to continue a power-sharing government with republican Roman Catholics unless the IRA begins to surrender its weapons.
The coalition was set up under terms of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord, which curtailed more than three decades of sectarian violence between Protestants supporting continued British rule and Catholics seeking union with Ireland.
The Commission statement may not satisfy some in the Protestant Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), who demand an immediate handover of IRA weapons to allow their leader, David Trimble, to return as head of the semi-autonomous government.
Jeffrey Donaldson, a prominent UUP member, said it was actions, not words, that mattered.
“The significance is not so much in what is said here, but whether or not the IRA will now follow through and decommission their illegal weapons,” Donaldson said.
Gerry Adams, president of the IRA’s political ally, Sinn Fein, urged Britain and unionist parties to “grasp the new opportunity that this unprecedented statement from the IICD (commission) creates”.
“Once again the IRA has demonstrated its commitment to the search for a lasting peace. The other parties need to match that commitment and should respond positively and constructively,” Adams said.
The move comes a week after the British and Republic of Ireland governments published a package of “take it or leave it” measures aimed at rescuing the peace process.
Feuding Protestant and Catholic politicians were set a deadline of midnight on Monday by London and Dublin to accept the new peace proposals.