Blair hails IRA's 'clean bill of health'

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Intelligence assessments giving the IRA a virtually clean bill of health have been hailed by the Government as a golden opportunity for a political breakthrough in Northern Ireland.

An official report indicated that the terrorist organisation was fast going out of business, following up the decommissioning of its weaponry by ceasing activities such as training and recruiting.

The report, by the Independent Monitoring Commission, led to the declaration from Tony Blair that "the IRA's campaign is over". It suggested that the IRA had neither the desire nor the capability to go back to violence.

In its most upbeat report ever, the IMC, which produces periodic assessments of terrorist organisations, said of the IRA: "Three years ago it was the most sophisticated and potentially the most dangerous of the groups, possessed of the largest arsenal of guns and other material.

"It is now firmly set on a political strategy, eschewing terrorism and other forms of crime. In this process there has been a loss of paramilitary capability."

For the authorities, the report was hugely welcome both in terms of its confirmation that the IRA no longer represents a threat to the security of the UK, and in its potential for aiding political advance.

London and Dublin have been attempting to push the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party into making a deal with Sinn Fein, but the loyalists have refused to co-operate while the IRA remained active.

The governments have set 24 November as the deadline for agreement, and next week they will take the Northern Ireland parties to Scotland for a session of talks designed to focus minds on the outstanding issues. Their hope is that Mr Paisley and his party will be so impressed by yesterday's report that they will be open to making progress towards power sharing.

The governments were clearly encouraged by Mr Paisley's initial response, which the Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain described as measured.

Far from denying that movement had taken place, the DUP leader said the assessment that the IRA "is progressively abandoning its terrorist structures shows that the pressure being brought to bear on republicans by the unequivocal policies of the DUP is working". He said he would be meeting the IMC to discuss issues surrounding IRA criminality, and whether the progress that had been made was permanent and irreversible.

The governments drew encouragement from the statement from a leader who has often opted for instant and sometimes contemptuous dismissal of such reports. Sinn Fein, by contrast, was more combative, Conor Murphy MP declaring: "Ian Paisley cannot hide forever. He cannot be permitted to freeze the peace process. To this point he appears intent on hiding behind preconditions to avoid a real political engagement... Decision time is looming for Ian Paisley."

The Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern warmly welcomed the report, which he said showed that the IRA had undergone profound transformation. "These positive and clear-cut findings are of the utmost importance and significance. I think it's as positive as anyone could have imagined it would have been," he said.

Mr Blair declared: "There is now a consensus across all main players in the politics of Northern Ireland, that change can only come through persuasion and not through violence of any sort. The IRA has done what we asked it to do, and while issues like policing remain to be solved, the door is now open to a final settlement."

Journey to peace

April 1998: Good Friday agreement signed. Democratic Unionists oppose the deal.

May: Referendum sees 71 per cent support for the deal, but there is a large "no" vote from sceptical Unionists.

June: First elections to Northern Ireland Assembly. UUP and SDLP are largest parties. The anti-agreement DUP comes third.

July: Drumcree stand-off leads to widespread violence. Days later, a sectarian petrol bombing kills three young Catholic boys in their Ballymoney home.

August: Real IRA bombs Omagh town centre killing 29, the largest single atrocity of the conflict. Gerry Adams later says: "The violence we have seen must be for all of us now a thing of the past, over, done with and gone."

October: SDLP's John Hume and the UUP's David Trimble share Nobel Peace Prize.

1999: Patten report recommends complete overhaul of policing.

March 2002: IRA suspected over break-in at Castlereagh police headquarters.

April: IRA says second tranche of arms put beyond use.

December 2004: Proposed political deal unravels over photographing IRA arms. IRA steals £26.5m from Northern Bank in Belfast.

January 2005: Robert McCartney killed outside Belfast pub by IRA members.

May: Mr. Paisley's DUP becomes biggest Unionist party at Westminster; Mr Trimble resigns as UUP leader.

September: Weapons monitors satisfied IRA has put all its arms beyond use.

October 2006: Favourable IMC report.