- The Washington Times - Monday, August 6, 2001

BELFAST, Northern Ireland The Irish Republican Army has proposed a satisfactory method for disarming, a commission announced today at a critical moment in efforts to save Northern Ireland's peace accord.

The plan wasn't immediately disclosed, nor did the commission say when the outlawed group intended to start. The British and Irish governments heralded it as a breakthrough, but Protestant politicians who had demanded an actual start expressed doubts that the IRA had offered enough.

“Based on our discussions with the IRA representative, we believe that this proposal initiates a process that will put IRA arms completely and verifiably beyond use,'' said the commission led by retired Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain.

The announcement came hours before leaders of the major Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, gathered to discuss how to respond to a British-Irish plan unveiled last week. They are under mounting pressure to continue working in a 20-month-old power-sharing administration that includes the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party.

“We're glad to see that the IRA has taken a significant step towards decommissioning (disarming) but it hasn't actually begun decommissioning. And of course we want to see that happen,'' Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble said.

The British and Irish governments welcomed the IRA move and urged the Ulster Unionists to embrace it too.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern called the IRA's commitment “very significant and historic,'' and said Ulster Unionists should recognize this. “People should see the historic significance rather than trying to see difficulties in it.''

“The agreement between the commission and the IRA is an important, and I believe a very significant step forward,'' agreed John Reid, Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland. “I believe it provides the basis and the potential for rapidly resolving the arms issue.''

In last week's document, Britain pledged to slash its military forces further and strengthen its plans for reforming Northern Ireland's mostly Protestant police force in hopes of spurring a start to IRA disarmament, a long-unfulfilled goal of the Good Friday pact of 1998.

Sinn Fein, junior Catholic partners in Northern Ireland's four-party administration, said the IRA move represented what the Ulster Unionists were demanding.

“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,'' said Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.

But the Ulster Unionists said they needed more information about the IRA offer.

“We will want to know that any proposals on (weapons) decommissioning fully comply with the legislation, in that the weapons must be rendered permanently unusable and unavailable,'' said Jeffrey Donaldson, a senior Ulster Unionist who has been skeptical of the Good Friday pact.

He said the IRA appeared to be offering “a very long wait.''

Mr. Trimble triggered the political crisis by resigning last month as the senior Protestant in the Northern Ireland administration. The deadline for his post to be filled is Aug. 12, otherwise the entire regime must be dissolved or suspended by Britain.

Since its creation in 1997, Mr. de Chastelain's commission has been waiting in vain for the IRA and major outlawed Protestant groups to begin scrapping weapons under its supervision. The Good Friday pact set a goal of total paramilitary disarmament by mid-2000. When that failed to happen, Britain and Ireland extended the deadline to June 2001.

As part of a deal that got the Ulster Unionists to form a government alongside Sinn Fein in late 1999, the IRA was expected to begin disarming. An IRA negotiator began meeting de Chastelain at that time but no concrete progress followed, forcing Britain to suspend the local administration's powers and resume direct control of Northern Ireland.

The Ulster Unionists resumed power-sharing with Sinn Fein in May 2000 after the IRA issued a promise to begin putting weapons “completely and verifiably beyond use.''

Today's statement from de Chastelain billed its understanding with the IRA as a start to the process of disarmament. But some Protestant politicians dismissed the developments as more hollow words from the IRA.

“This is just a further delaying tactic to gain further concessions,'' said Peter Robinson, deputy leader of the Democratic Unionists, the most hard-line Protestant party in the Northern Ireland administration.

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