This is a milestone in peace process

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Almost everyone was so impressed yesterday with the IRA's move on its arms dumps that the occasion will undoubtedly be regarded as a milestone in the peace process.

Almost everyone was so impressed yesterday with the IRA's move on its arms dumps that the occasion will undoubtedly be regarded as a milestone in the peace process.

While some grassroots Unionists will agree with the Rev Ian Paisley, who scoffed at it as a "complete gimmick", the general opinion hailed the development as a huge departure for republicanism.

It has taken years for Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to persuade the world they are genuinely leading their movement away from its tradition of armed rebellion. But in recent months, as they put forward the deal which produced yesterday's development, they have been conspicuously successful in winning over doubters. Many of their sternest critics have recently come round, seemingly convinced by the general course of the peace process, the fact that violence, though not eliminated, has been reduced so dramatically, and by the arms-dump move. In the republican psyche, power was traditionally held to come out of the barrel of a gun; and they resorted to the gun because they believed they had no other source of empowerment.

This mindset has now been altered in a dramatic way. Republicans sense that an alternative is available in Sinn Fein, the establishment of the peace process with its philosophy of inclusion, and the Good Friday Agreement. After all these years, an unarmed struggle is now a real possibility.

The IRA's problem lay in how to deal with the weapons question while removing any suggestion of surrender or admission that the armed struggle had been in vain. The tactic of using international monitors seems to have soothed fears in the republican heartlands. Yet both new converts and seasoned supporters know yesterday's move was far from conclusive. There is nothing to stop IRA volunteers sneaking into either inspected bunkers, or those which have not been examined, and taking out the guns.

Although the shadow of the gunman - both republican and loyalist - has not completely disappeared, confidence in republican intentions has increased dramatically, boosting the expectation that the IRA will, in time, fulfil its offer to put the guns "completely and verifiably beyond use".

The prevailing sense is that republicans have crossed a hugely significant barrier in their own minds. The hope is that the peace process will eventually bring a complete farewell to arms.

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