IRA will put its weapons 'completely beyond use'

The IRA took an historic step yesterday towards giving up its weapons in a surprise move that gave a sudden surge of hope to the Irish peace process.

General John de Chastelain, chairman of the International Commission on Decommissioning, announced that the IRA had proposed a means of putting its arms completely and verifiably beyond use, and that the commission was satisfied the plan involved no risk to the public and would prevent dissident republicans gaining access to the stockpile.

Although the method of decommissioning has not been revealed and the timing of the arms disposal has not been specified, both the British and Irish governments described it as a breakthrough after months of deadlock.

Last night it also emerged that both the British and Irish governments had last week agreed to a request from General de Chastelain to make new regulations under the decommissioning legislation, so that it is in line with the IRA's proposals. However, the precise significance of this is unclear since the text of the changes gives no indication of the manner of decommissioning proposed.

Crucially for the survival of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which otherwise faces being shut down this weekend, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, gave a guarded welcome. He described it as "a significant step towards decommissioning", but he and other Unionists stressed they wanted to see an actual start to decommissioning. Although the initiative is widely seen as a breakthrough, it is not regarded as enough to meet the demands of Mr Trimble's highly sceptical party.

Lord Kilclooney, formerly John Taylor MP, a prominent figure in the UUP, said: "The statement represents progress and is encouraging. The key question is: when will it happen? Until that is resolved, political instability will continue."

The peace process faces a deadline this weekend, when the Government is legally obliged to suspend the Assembly or call fresh elections. This choice can only be averted if Mr Trimble were to be successfully re-elected as First Minister. This, in turn, is most unlikely unless something is delivered on the timing issue. It is unclear whether the IRA will now issue a statement clarifying any of the details on timing.

The IRA indication followed publication of a London-Dublin document that set out new moves on policing and demilitarisation. All the parties were asked to respond to it by last night, a deadline which most missed and which the Government confirmed last night would not be enforced.

General de Chastelain's statement was was welcomed by Tony Blair and the Northern Ireland Secretary, John Reid, who said: "It is an important and, I believe, very significant step forward. I believe it provides the basis and the potential for rapidly resolving the arms issue."

The Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, went much further. "Taken on its merits, this is a very, very significant and historic statement. People should see the historic significance rather than trying to see difficulties in it," he said.

The Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, said the statement marked a "hugely historical breakthrough"."Once again the IRA has demonstrated its commitment to the search for a lasting peace. The other parties need to match that commitment and should respond positively and constructively."

The statement was dismissed by the Rev Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, who claimed the governments did not know how decommissioning will happen. He said: "This is the last-ditch attempt by a discredited government who has entered into partnership with the people who have brought mayhem, murder and genocide to our province."

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