Gerry Adams signalled that the IRA is on the verge of a potentially historic move on arms aimed at rescuing the Good Friday Agreement from oblivion. The announcement drew a cautious response from the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, who called it "potentially significant".
The Sinn Fein president announced that he and Martin McGuinness had asked the IRA to make "a groundbreaking move on the arms issue". The organisation is expected to agree to this within days.
Mr Adams expressed the hope – which will be shared by London, Dublin and most of those involved in the peace process – that an important arms move will save the Agreement from collapse and transform the process.
Similar announcements of Sinn Fein requests to the IRA have been made before major decisions made in the past. Since they have always been successful, a decommissioning move by the IRA is now confidently expected.
Republican sources say the decision to take action on guns has already been thoroughly discussed within both the IRA and Sinn Fein, and although there is some nervousness in the ranks the course is set.
To reassure doubters, Sinn Fein placed the IRA veteran Joe Cahill close to Mr Adams yesterday as Mr Adams made his announcement to the television cameras. This was clearly intended to drive home the point that the weapons move had the active support of an IRA old-timer venerated by republicans for his gun-running exploits in the past.
The exact form and scale of the planned course of action has yet to be spelt out, but all the indications are that its proportions will be calculated to impress even the sceptical.
The expectation of an early move on arms decommissioning heightened in Belfast yesterday during a day of intense political activity.
In the morning, Mr Adams held a meeting with John Reid, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party leader. After the meeting, Mr Reid encouraged the republicans along the decommissioning path with a public commitment delivered on behalf not only of the British Government but of Dublin and Washington as well.
If arms were put beyond use, he told paramilitary groups, "I believe you will not find the response from this Government, from the Irish Government, the American administration and the whole international community to be grudging or ungenerous".
After Mr Adams had made his announcement, Michael McGimpsey, one of Mr Trimble's supporters, said: "Words are not enough – we want to see action. However, it would be grudging of me not to state that there are promising parts in this statement that may be heralding further steps." Mr Reid welcomed the announcement as "a highly significant statement". The minister added: "Like everyone, I hope that the IRA will accept the view that a groundbreaking move on the arms issue will transform the situation."
Also yesterday, Mr Adams admitted he had been wrong to deny the Cuban foreign ministry's claims that Niall Connolly, one of three republicans arrested in Colombia several months ago, had served as an official Sinn Fein representative in Cuba. "I regret and apologise for the embarrassment caused by our initial response to the issue of Niall's role," he said.
Mr Adams said he and other senior Sinn Fein members had been unaware of the Connolly appointment. He continued to maintain, however, that Sinn Fein "had no case to answer" regarding the Colombian arrests.
Also yesterday, Mr Trimble called on Mr Reid to take urgent action to resolve the political crisis caused by the decision of five Unionist ministers to pull out of the Northern Ireland executive, leaving only five nationalists in place.
The Rev Ian Paisley, meanwhile, led his Democratic Unionists out of the Assembly after accusing the government of double standards. He said: "Today no self-respecting Unionist can remain in this chamber and pretend that we can do business with a government that is both republican and nationalist."
In Dublin, the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, said the next 72 hours would be crucial and that he hoped a formula could be worked out: "We have followed a consistent path and hopefully we will get there."
In north Belfast, two Catholic girls were recovering after a pipebomb thrown from a loyalist area exploded beside them on Sunday. The device hit one girl on the chest, then exploded beside her companion, injuring her in the back.
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