A report on paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland has concluded that the IRA has run down many of its operations but has by no means eradicated them.
The report by the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) says the IRA remains a sophisticated terrorist grouping which remains in a state of readiness, though there is no evidence of any preparation for a return to violence.
The picture it gives of dwindling IRA activity may have political significance, in that attempts to make a new deal will hinge on the organisation becoming inert.
The commission, which includes the former CIA man Richard Kerr and John Grieve, a one-time commander of Scotland Yard's Anti-Terrorist Squad, reports to the British and Irish governments.
In its third report, the commission warns that other groups on both the republican and loyalist sides remain active and involved in violence and other illegality.
Its assessment is a sensitive issue with heavy political overtones. London, Dublin and the major political parties have for weeks been attempting to thrash out a deal acceptable to the two key parties, Sinn Fein and the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists (DUP).
A deal is only thought possible if the IRA agrees to cease all its activities. The commission's report will therefore be scrutinised for signals that the reduction in activity is not a tactical move but a genuine phase in a process of the IRA closing itself down.
The report accuses the organisation of continuing to recruit, though in small numbers, engaging in some relatively low-level training, and in gathering intelligence. It was also said to have prepared "area defence" during last summer's marching season.
On the other hand, it carried out no killings, reduced its shootings and assaults, and in recent months "appears to have suspended action against those it believed to be behaving anti-socially while monitoring what people were doing".
In the Republic of Ireland, according to the report, "certain of the organised criminal activity seems to have been closed down, and we have found no recent evidence of violent paramilitary activity".
Those hopeful of a DUP-Sinn Fein deal being struck in the near future will be encouraged by the acknowledged rundown in activity but concerned that this is not matched by a reduction in capability.
Ian Paisley Jnr of the DUP declared yesterday: "The IRA has not fundamentally changed, so we should not fundamentally change our position in blocking them from being in the government of Northern Ireland. These people are not fit to be in government, nor are their alter egos Sinn Fein."
Sinn Fein's policing and justice spokesman, Gerry Kelly, denounced the report, saying that it was based on information which had been provided by intelligence elements opposed to the peace process.
He added: "Previous reports have already been exposed as riddled with inaccuracies. The IMC has no credibility within the broad nationalist and republican community and the contents of this latest report are of little interest to it."
The commission said the Real IRA remained potentially a very dangerous group which was seeking to improve its engineering capacity and access to weaponry. It said the group was attracting new members and was involved in smuggling and other non-terrorist crime.
The report said that the major loyalist paramilitary groups, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), remained active and violent.
It said of the UDA: "It is heavily engaged in crime, including drugs and feuds, remains heavily involved in many kinds of organised crime, and remains capable of more widespread violence."
The UVF was described as ruthless and retaining a capacity for more widespread violence.Reuse content