- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 24, 2001

The Irish Republican Army yesterday began to dispose of its arsenal of paramilitary weapons, an unprecedented move that promises to end the current deadlock in the Irish peace process.
In response to the IRA's move, David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and the main voice of Northern Ireland Protestants, said he would return as head of the province's power-sharing assembly and save the government from collapse.
In what was seen as a reciprocal gesture toward the IRA, British Prime Minister Tony Blair signaled that the British military presence in Northern Ireland would be scaled back in the wake of the IRA's decision to disarm.
"We are a long way from finishing our journey," Mr. Blair said yesterday. "But a very significant milestone has been passed."
The IRA's political ally, Sinn Fein, has been fueling speculation that the guerrilla group was prepared to dispose of, or decommission, its weapons arsenal, which is estimated to include over 600 AK-47 assault rifles, 40 RPG-7 rocket launchers and several tons of Semtex high explosives. The question of decommissioning has dogged the Irish peace process for years and has often threatened to unravel the Good Friday peace accord signed in the spring of 1998.
"The political process is now on the point of collapse," the IRA said yesterday in an anonymous statement. "Therefore, in order to save the peace process, we have implemented the scheme agreed with the [Independent International Commission on Decommissioning] in August."
The IICD is the independent body tasked with supervising paramilitary groups that are willing to decommission. According to the carefully crafted diplomatic jargon of last August's agreement, the IICD had developed a plan for the IRA to put their weapons "completely and verifiably beyond use."
Yesterday, the IICD said it had overseen "an event which we regard as significant in which the IRA has put a quantity of arms completely beyond use. The material in question includes arms, ammunition and explosives."
Through several centuries of internecine violence and the past 30 years of serious unrest known as "the troubles," an Irish guerrilla force has never before agreed to dispose of their weapons in such a way.
The fresh move from the IRA is expected to immediately improve the political atmosphere in Northern Ireland, where the Stormont Parliament, an assembly where Protestants and Catholics share power, was about to fall over the seemingly insuperable issue of decommissioning.
Protestant politicians of the Ulster Unionist Party had resigned from the government, setting a Thursday deadline to find an agreement over decommissioning or shut down the government indefinitely. The Ulster Unionists have twice agreed to join administrations including the militant Catholics of Sinn Fein, on condition that IRA disarmament followed.
Mr. Trimble said yesterday he will call a special meeting of his Ulster Unionist Party on Saturday and "go with a recommendation that the party approve our action in reconstituting" Northern Ireland's Stormont government.
"I congratulate the IRA for this historic, truly unprecedented move," Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's chief political negotiator, said yesterday on the steps of the capitol. "This is a defining day in the history of our small island."
Mr. McGuinness, once a leading figure of the IRA, was on a one-day trip to Washington meant to consolidate support for the IRA's decommissioning move among American politicians and the Irish-American lobby.
Mr. Blair paid tribute to Mr. McGuinness and the rest of the Sinn Fein leadership for having "taken the risks that needed to be taken."
Mr. Blair urged Protestant, pro-British paramilitaries to follow the IRA's lead and disarm.
Disarming is an emotional issue for IRA supporters, and Sinn Fein has been cautious about any move that might lead to defection to hard-line groups opposed to the Irish peace process. One such group, the so-called Real IRA, committed the worst single atrocity in Northern Ireland's 30-year conflict by killing 29 persons in Omagh on Aug. 15, 1998.

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