IRA blames British 'lack of will' for Belfast accord's troubles

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The Independent Online

The Irish Republican Army offered no hint Wednesday in its annual Easter statement that it would ever disarm, and instead blamed Britain for upsetting Northern Ireland's 2-year-old peace accord.

The outlawed IRA did not once mention disarmament, the issue that has brought political progress in this British-ruled territory to a standstill.

The statement, issued to journalists before Thursday's publication in the weekly IRA-Sinn Fein newspaper Republican News, was being studied closely by the British and Irish governments for signs of new thinking.

The British and Irish prime ministers, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, plan to meet Thursday in London to discuss a new initiative for breaking the deadlock. Blair spent much of Tuesday in Northern Ireland trying to win new commitments from local parties, particularly the IRA-linked Sinn Fein.

But the IRA's 14-paragraph statement - due to be read aloud this weekend at rallies of IRA supporters across Ireland - stuck to traditional themes of defiance and blame.

It declared that Britain had been wrong in February to suspend the powers of Northern Ireland's joint Catholic-Protestant administration after 11 weeks in office.

Britain at the time insisted it had to resume direct rule of Northern Ireland or watch the province's major Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, withdraw from the administration, which had been proposed in the 1998 peace accord. The Ulster Unionists had agreed to work alongside Sinn Fein in the four-parresponse. But the IRA refused.

And in Wednesday's statement the IRA indicated that its 1997 cease-fire - halting a 27-year campaign to destabilize Northern Ireland as a Protestant-majority state - was all the group would have to offer.

"The British government's unilateral decision to collapse the political institutions in February highlights a lack of political will to bring about meaningful change," the IRA said.

"The British government cannot hide behind or underwrite unionist intransigence, or those who seek a military victory over the IRA," the group said.

The IRA accused the British army of deploying extra troops and resources in the most staunchly pro-IRA areas of Northern Ireland. It accused Northern Ireland's predominantly Protestant police force of trying to recruit informers and spies within IRA ranks.

"Those who seek a military victory need to understand that this cannot and will not happen," the group said.

The Good Friday accord of 1998 proposed a Catholic-Protestant administration in Northern Ireland that would take many responsibilities away from the British government, which assumed direct control of the province in 1972. The accord reaffirmed that the province should remain part of the United Kingdom, but should also build political ties with the rest of Ireland as many Catholics wished.

Crucially, though, the accord expected Northern Ireland's rival outlawed groups - the IRA in hard-line Catholic areas and so-called loyalist groups in Protestant areas - to disarm gradually in cooperation with an international commission. The target for the groups' total disarmament was to have been May 22, a deadline all sides now consider unrealistic.

An IRA commander began meeting the disarmament commission after Sinn Fein gained its two posts within the 12-member administration, but he did not offer any concrete commitments. The IRA withdrew from the secret dialogue once Britain suspended the administration's powers.