LONDON — The Irish Republican Army called a halt yesterday to more than three decades of deadly violence in the British Isles, ordering its paramilitary “units” to lay down their weapons immediately and stick to peaceful politics to pursue their aims.
On a DVD, former prisoner Seana Walsh read the statement in which the IRA leadership instructed its members to “dump arms,” stop all military activity at 4 p.m. British time (11 a.m. EST) and use “exclusively peaceful means” in quest of their goal of a united Ireland.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed the IRA statement as a “step of unparalleled magnitude.”
He added, in a mixture of hope and caution, “This may be the day which finally, after all these false dawns and dashed hopes, peace replaced war, politics replaces terror on the island of Ireland.”
The statement expressed no remorse for killings, injuries and destruction since 1969.
The United States and others were skeptical.
“We understand that many, especially victims and their families, will be skeptical. They will want to be certain that this terrorism and criminality are indeed things of the past,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
After 36 years of an armed campaign, in which it was blamed for about 1,800 deaths in bombings and shootings, the IRA conceded that “we believe there is now an alternative way to achieve [a united Ireland] and to end British rule in our country” — a reference to British rule in Northern Ireland.
Although he welcomed the group’s renunciation of violence, Mr. Blair warily issued an appeal for the IRA to match words with action.
“All of us throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom will want to see this clear statement of principle kept to in practice,” Mr. Blair said in a television broadcast.
The IRA has observed a cease-fire since 1997 but has steadfastly sidestepped the touchy issue of ridding itself of bullets and bombs. Hard-line dissident splinter groups have kept up the violence.
Yesterday, the organization said it intended “to complete the process to verifiably put its arms beyond use in a way which will further enhance public confidence and to conclude this as quickly as possible.”
“We have invited two independent witnesses, from the Protestant and Catholic churches, to testify to this,” it said.
The IRA did not identify the witnesses.
The group pledged to work with the Independent International Commission of Decommissioning, headed by Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain.
Press reports said the general had met with IRA leaders in the past two days, ahead of yesterday’s developments.
The IRA also said, “All volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programs through exclusively peaceful means” — adding an order that “volunteers must not engage in any other activities whatsoever.”
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said, “As a statement goes, this delivers what I’d been seeking. I wanted to see decommissioning be dealt with, I wanted to see the IRA as a paramilitary organization ceasing, and … this statement covers those points, there’s no doubt about that.”
Others were more skeptical.
The Rev. Ian Paisley, the hard-line leader of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland and a steadfast critic of what he sees as London’s conciliatory attitude toward the group, cited the numerous “historic” statements issued by the IRA before it “reverted to type.”
“We will judge the IRA’s bona fides over the next months and years based on its behavior and activity,” Mr. Paisley said.
Just why the IRA chose this particular time to abandon that “armed struggle” after so many years is still not clear.
But the seeds of the move could have been sowed in December’s robbery of the equivalent of $39 million from the Northern Bank in Belfast by IRA operatives and the slaying the next month of Belfast man Robert McCartney, also by IRA members.
Both the heist and the McCartney killing attracted opprobrium from as far away as the United States, where many supporters of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political arm, were reported to have deserted the organization.
Moreover, the McCartney slaying drew attention to beatings and other violence that continues to dog the province as IRA paramilitary and organized crime groups seek to control their communities.
The IRA yesterday made no explicit reference to crime nor did it promise to disband.
The McCartney killing prompted the White House to snub Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, a presidential guest in previous administrations, by denying him an invitation during St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.
Instead, President Bush invited Mr. McCartney’s sisters to the White House.
After the St. Patrick’s Day snub, Mr. Adams told the IRA that it was time to abandon armed struggle in favor of a pursuit of its goals through peaceful and democratic means.
“The outcome of our consultations shows very strong support among IRA volunteers for the Sinn Fein peace strategy,” the IRA said yesterday.
Mr. Adams called the move a “courageous and confident initiative” and insisted that the moment must be seized.