The IRA's farewell to arms

David McKittrick has reported from Belfast since the early 1970s and has won many awards. Among his books is Lost Lives, chronicling every death of the Troubles
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It was the thought of the widows which first came to mind when the IRA promised that it would create no more of them, that it would opt for peace and politics and leave terrorism behind.

The IRA, once one of the world's most merciless and relentless killing machines, formally signalled to the world yesterday that after almost four decades and 3,700 funerals its "war" had run its course.

It declared that its members "must not engage in any other activities whatsoever", except peaceful ones, saying it intended to put its arms beyond use as quickly as possible.

Thus an organisation which regards itself as undefeated in the field, which survived all that the Army, police and intelligence service could throw at it, announced that it was going into voluntary liquidation.

Unless something goes horribly wrong, it has the potential to go into the history books as one of the most decisive of all the "historic" moments that the last decade has seen.

It was a statement that has been keenly awaited for years. Though some reacted initially with deep scepticism and suspicion, it was hailed in other quarters as a historic change of heart.

But it is too late for all those widows. Nobody knows how many the IRA created, but the figure runs into the hundreds. The organisation killed 1,700 of the 3,700 people who died in the Troubles, leaving men, women, children, families to grieve.

The guns and explosives it now promises to do away with caused decades of destruction as it sought to unite Ireland by force. But instead of achieving Irish unity it caused all those deaths, ruining lives and shattering families. The bereaved and injured will have mixed feelings about this latest move: the main hope of most of them will be that no one else should suffer as they have. Some of those affected are deeply bitter; others have shown transcendent qualities of forgiveness.

As the figures show, the IRA was not the only source of violence, but it was always the most proficient of the killing groups, the most cunning and the most dangerous.

But now it has found an alternative form of empowerment, putting its faith in the rapid advance of Sinn Fein as a political force. The republicans also suffered their own casualties, with hundreds of IRA and Sinn Fein people dying.

The signs are that republicans really mean it, and are ready to turn a new page, having satisfied themselves that they can succeed politically without further recourse to guns and bombs. But the past republican record of blatant denials means no one will take the statement at face value. The arms must be decommissioned, and all illegality must stop.

But although months of verification lie ahead, Tony Blair was ready yesterday to describe it as a step of unparalleled magnitude, adding: " This may be the day when finally, after all the false dawns and dashed hopes, peace replaced war, politics replaces terror on the island of Ireland. "

His sentiments were echoed by the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, with words which in terms of the republican movement unmistakably signalled that it envisages a new era: "Today's decision by the IRA to move into a new peaceful mode is historic and represents a courageous and confident initiative. It is a truly momentous and defining point in the search for a lasting peace with justice. There is a time to resist, to stand up and to confront the enemy by arms if necessary. In other words, there is a time for war. There is also a time to engage, to reach out and put war behind us."

The IRA and Sinn Fein have previously rejected all demands that they should say the war is over. But opinion in Belfast, London and in particular Dublin has decisively swung against them this year, as republicans were linked with a pub killing in Belfast, money-laundering and a major bank robbery.

Republican illegality had been reduced but the fact that it persisted, and was accompanied by implausible denials, brought torrents of criticism on the IRA and Sinn Fein. Yesterday's announcement may have been hastened by this. The statement appears to meet the insistent demands of London and Dublin for an end to IRA recruitment, training, surveillance of targets, robberies, extortion, intimidation and indeed all the other trappings of paramilitarism.

First of all the guns are to go, their decommissioning witnessed by Canadian General John de Chastelain and two clergymen, a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister.

The Government is meanwhile to run down some aspects of security, dismantling army watchtowers on the border and paving the way for republican fugitives to return to Northern Ireland without threat of prosecution.

It will also indicate that it is prepared to legislate for potential devolution to Northern Ireland to be beefed up by having some security powers transferred to a new devolved administration. There will also be periodic reports by an Independent Monitoring Commission, which the authorities hope and assume will confirm that IRA illegality has ceased.

The idea is that yesterday's move will prove hugely valuable on two counts. First, the IRA will never kill again, lifting the shadow of the republican gunman from Northern Ireland. Second, confirmation of the IRA's shutdown will over the months lead to new political negotiations for the restoration of devolution.

The Rev Ian Paisley and his Democratic Unionists are the key to this, since they will have to declare themselves satisfied that the republican movement has been transformed and is suitable for inclusion in government.

This will probably stretch into next year, given that such verification will realistically take months and involve fresh elections to a Belfast Assembly.

Mr Paisley said: "Even on the face of the statement, they have failed to explicitly declare an end to their multimillion-pound criminal activity and they have failed to provide the level of transparency that will be necessary to truly build confidence that the guns have gone in their entirety. This lack of transparency will prolong the period the community will need to make its assessment."

But, most participants in the peace process will be happy if the statement revives a show that has been stalled for a long time. In the meantime, Northern Ireland will continue to improve as it sinks in that the IRA is no longer a violent menace.

The IRA's announcement of its departure from the scene echoed the words with which it wound up its previous campaign in the early 1960s. Then, too, it instructed units to "dump arms" - but this time it went much further, saying they would be rendered inoperable. In the 1960s, The New York Times wrote of that campaign's closure: "The IRA belongs to history, and it belongs to better men in times that are gone. Let us put a wreath of red roses on their grave and move on."

That hope for the disappearance of the IRA turned out to be premature. This time the widows and the other bereaved, some of whom still place wreaths on more recent graves, will hope that yesterday's announcement really is the epitaph of the IRA.

The statement

"The leadership of Oglaigh na hEireann has formally ordered an end to the armed campaign. This will take effect from 4pm this afternoon.

"All IRA units have been ordered to dump arms. All Volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means. Volunteers must not engage in any other activities whatsoever.

"The IRA leadership has also authorised our representative to engage with the IICD [Independent International Commission on Decommissioning] 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.

"The Army Council took these decisions following an unprecedented internal discussion and consultation process with IRA units and Volunteers.

"We appreciate the honest and forthright way in which the consultation process was carried out and the depth and content of the submissions.

"We are proud of the comradely way in which this truly historic discussion was conducted. The outcome of our consultations show very strong support among IRA Volunteers for the Sinn Fein peace strategy. There is also widespread concern about the failure of the two governments and the unionists to fully engage in the peace process. This has created real difficulties.

"The overwhelming majority of pepole in Ireland fully support this process. They and friends of Irish unity throughout the world want to see the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

"Notwithstanding these difficulties, our decisions have been taken to advance our republican and democratic objectives, including our goal of a united Ireland. We believe there is now an alternative way to aciheve this and to end British rule in our country.

"It is the responsibility of all Volunteers to show leadership, determination and courage. We are mindful of the sacrifices of our patriot dead, those who went to jail, Volunteers, their families and the wider republican base. We reiterate our view that the armed struggle was entirely legitimate.

"We are conscious that many people suffered in the conflict. There is a compelling imperative on all sides to build a just and lasting peace.

"The issue of the defence of nationalist and republican communities has been raised with us. There is a responsibility on society to ensure that there is no re-occurrence of the pogroms of 1969 and the early 1970s. There is also a universal responsibility to tackle sectarianism in all its forms.

"The IRA is fully committed to the goals of Irish unity and independence and to building the Republic outlined in the 1916 Proclamation. We call for maximum unity and effort by Irish republicans everywhere.

"We are confident that by working together Irish republicans can achieve our objectives. Every Volunteer is aware of the import of the decisions we have taken and all Oglaigh are compelled to fully comply.

"There is now an unprecedented opportunity to utilise the considerable energy and goodwill which there is for the peace process. This comprehensive series of unparalleled initiatives is our contribution to this and to the continued endeavours to bring about independence and unity for the people of Ireland."