- The Washington Times - Friday, May 26, 2000

BELFAST Northern Ireland's largest pro-British political party will set the course of the peace process Saturday when it decides whether to accept or reject a disarmament proposal from the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

But whatever the Ulster Unionist Party decides, it will not affect a small group of paramilitary zealots who have vowed to continue their violent campaign for a united Ireland.

In a groundbreaking statement on May 6, the IRA offered a way out of a long-standing impasse over demands that it eliminate, or "decommission," its arsenal of weapons. Under the plan, IRA arms bunkers would be opened to independent inspection and subsequently put "verifiably and completely beyond use."

Unionist leader David Trimble has called on his party to put the IRA pledge to the test with a positive vote this weekend. If it does so, Protestant and Catholic politicians will be allowed to reconvene the Northern Ireland Assembly that was suspended four months ago.

But two IRA dissident groups that oppose the peace process see the decommissioning offer as a betrayal of their principles and are committed to wrecking the peace effort.

One such group, the Continuity IRA, emerged after the 1994 IRA cease-fire and has been responsible for sporadic bombing and shooting attacks against security and commercial targets. It claims its roots in the 1916 Easter Rising for Irish independence and comprises ideological purists who remain committed to armed struggle.

"Those guns do not belong to the IRA, they belong to the Irish people who are fighting against the British," said Thomas Crossan, 29, a Continuity IRA activist who is awaiting sentencing for an abortive machine-gun attack against a police station.

"It is not for the IRA to do anything with those guns except hand them over to the people who are prepared to use them."

Crossan's views are shared by the Continuity IRA's political allies, Republican Sinn Fein, who have relentlessly criticized the peace process and describe the 2-year-old Good Friday peace agreement as a sellout.

"We are the voice of the Republican struggle. We are the ones who are continuing the struggle for Irish reunification," said Micheal S. Duibhir, a Republican Sinn Fein spokesman.

"We will never accept anything less than a British withdrawal under any circumstances. We are not interested in tinkering with the Irish body politic. The least we will accept is a British declaration of their intent to withdraw."

There is also resistance on the Protestant side.

The Ulster Freedom Fighters, a leading pro-British militia, said Thursday it would not decommission its own stockpile of heavy assault rifles, small arms, grenades and explosives.

The UFF, blamed by security sources for a campaign of random murder of Catholic nationalists, issued a statement saying it did not believe the IRA offer was a genuine intention to disarm.

Although they have only a fraction of the support the mainstream Sinn Fein enjoys, Republican Sinn Fein insists a growing number of disaffected IRA and Sinn Fein activists are breaking ranks to join their movement.

"During the early 1990s, the IRA had the British on the run. Bombs in London brought their economy to its knees," Crossan said. "Then they decide to call a cease-fire? The only language the British understand comes from a 500-pound bomb. More and more people now realize that."

The peace process also dismays the Real IRA, the other major IRA splinter group. In the immediate aftermath of the Good Friday peace agreement, the Real IRA started a bombing campaign in Northern Ireland that ended with the notorious Omagh bomb that killed 29 civilians in August 1998.

The group called a cease-fire after the tragedy, but Irish security forces recently seized weapons in a raid on a Real IRA training camp. A number of unclaimed attacks against British security forces are believed to have been organized by the Real IRA.

Security forces sealed off streets around a British army observation post Thursday after reports of an explosion believed to have been the work of an anti-British militia.

Security sources say the Continuity IRA and Real IRA have ideological differences but have been known to cooperate.

"There are very few people involved, maybe 100 strong supporters and half that who are prepared to launch an operation," said a security spokesman. "They are involved in what some people have called strategic terrorism. They watch the political developments and time their attacks to destabilize the peace."

So far, most supporters of the mainstream Sinn Fein and IRA still back their leadership. But Sinn Fein chief Gerry Adams has said that he faces a backlash from his party's grass roots.

In a recent poll, 22 percent of Sinn Fein supporters in Northern Ireland said the latest decommissioning plan went too far and amounted to surrender. Dissident groups hope that dismay will lead to direct support for their cause.

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