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Tuesday, 23 October, 2001, 16:09 GMT 17:09 UK
Why did the IRA decommission now?
The arms issue has long hindered the peace process
Shane Harrison

The word "historic" has been much over-used in the Northern Ireland peace process. But the decision by the Provisional IRA to decommission its weapons is truly that, historic.

Last week someone who wanted to be described as a "senior republican source", but whom we now know to be Gerry Adams, said any decision by the IRA over the coming weeks, would be bigger than the 1994 ceasefire announcement.

That comment alone indicates how important republicans view their weapons decision.

No Irish republican group has decommissioned its weapons before. In the past republican paramilitary groups "dumped arms" or buried weapons in hedges and ditches rather than render them useless.

Indeed, the myth, dating from the 18th Century, of the "pike in the thatch", ready for use when the time is right is part of the Irish nationalist consciousness.

Break with history

So why have republicans broken with history?

Colombia and September 11th.

The arrests of three IRA suspects, who had been visiting rebel-controlled Colombia, raised serious questions for the governments in London, Dublin and Washington as well as the divided Ulster Unionist Party, which was reluctant to share power with Sinn Fein in the absence of movement of arms.

Concerns were expressed about IRA links with the Farc group - a Marxist organisation that the United States believes is involved in the drugs trade.

Sinn Fein's denials of any involvement impressed few and dented the party's credibility. The Bush administration's Special Envoy to Ireland, Richard Hass, warned that what the three were up to "came within the rubric of terrorism".

By this time, September 11th had changed attitudes to international terrorism and pressure on the republican movement intensified. It is now clear many in the IRA leadership do not want to be caught on the wrong side of history.

And republicans tend to take the long view. Despite their success in the British election they know they have had three bad months.

Republic electoral hopes

But decommissioning weapons can reclaim some of that lost ground, especially in the Irish Republic where an election must be held before next summer. Sinn Fein currently has one seat there. It hopes to increase that by up to four.

There is even talk of Sinn Fein possibly holding the balance of power after the election. But the written Irish constitution appears to make it clear that no party with a private army can be in government. So, inevitably now attention will turn from weapons to the future of the IRA itself.

What, after all, is the point of a secret army if it has no guns and is now a public relations liability? It may take some time but it may now only be a matter of time before the IRA itself is stood down.

And that, given the history of the two islands - Britain and Ireland - over last 80 years or so, really would be historic.

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