IRA begins to lay down its arms

Arms decommissioning became a reality when the IRA finally put part of its armoury beyond use, paving the way for a new era in the Irish peace process.

It was hailed as a breakthrough in many quarters, though much will hinge on whether a sceptical Unionist community will accept it as enough to go back into government with Sinn Fein.

Tony Blair said the move was a "significant milestone" for Northern Ireland and that self-government could now be properly re-established. "This is a peace process that, despite it all, is working," the Prime Minister told a Downing Street press conference.

The American State Department called the IRA move an "historic breakthrough".

The act carries a huge symbolic charge within both communities in Northern Ireland, many Unionists having regarded it as the key to peace and a condition for co-operation with Sinn Fein.

For republicans it is a giant step in the journey from violence to political action. For the peace process as a whole it could be of prodigious importance, finally freeing political processes, which since the 1994 IRA ceasefire have been bedevilled by the arms issue.

The IRA announcement that it had moved to put arms beyond use was almost entirely bereft of detail. It said it had implemented a scheme that was agreed in August. Saying the peace process was on the verge of collapse, it added: "This unprecedented move is to save the peace process and to persuade others of our genuine intentions."

The chairman of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, the Canadian General John de Chastelain, is believed to have witnessed the putting of weaponry beyond use yesterday after drawing up an inventory of the guns involved. Legislation decrees that weapons must be "destroyed, permanently inaccessible or permanently unusable".

In a short, formal report last night, General de Chastelain said he and two colleagues "have now witnessed an event – which we regard as significant – in which the IRA has put a quantity of arms completely beyond use". He added that the material included arms, ammunition and explosives.

The IRA statement, issued at 5pm yesterday, was, however, completely silent on how guns had been put beyond use and on what quantity of weaponry was involved. There was no clarification either of whether the exercise was a one-off action or whether more such acts could be expected. While many pressed for more details, the sense was widespread that the IRA had crossed a Rubicon, even though not all of its guns had been put beyond use. In this context its significance was ranked alongside its 1994 ceasefire.

The authorities are to move quickly to demolish two south Armagh look-out posts in response to the announcement. John Reid, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, had already promised that, in the event of decommissioning, London, Dublin and Washington would not be "grudging or ungenerous".

The development sparked an immediate debate within the ranks of Unionism, with the Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, meeting General de Chastelain last night.

One of his internal party critics, Jeffrey Donaldson MP, said before the meeting that the IRA statement was not enough and did not provide clarity. "We will need urgent answers from General de Chastelain about key questions such as whether this is a one-off gesture by the IRA, or a credible process leading to total disarmament."

Mr Trimble may now move to reinstate the three Ulster Unionist ministers who resigned from the Northern Ireland executive last week. If he decides the IRA action goes far enough, then he faces a series of party meetings at which he will seek to persuade colleagues that they should go back into government with Sinn Fein. The IRA move was dismissed by Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist Party, who said: "Smoke and mirrors and sleight of hand and fudge and haziness simply won't cut it. Far from being ground-breaking, that barely scratches the surface. We want to know what the inventory is, we want proof that decommissioning has taken place."

Loyalist paramilitary sources instantly poured cold water on the prospect that armed extreme Protestant groups would follow the IRA's example.

The Ulster Defence Association, whose ceasefire was recently declared by the Government to be over, said: "Decommissioning is not on the cards." The grouping said it "could not leave its community undefended" against republican attack.

David Ervine, whose Progressive Unionist Party speaks for the Ulster Volunteer Force, accepted the IRA statement was "seriously significant" but said he could offer no hope of loyalists responding "because they are not ready".

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