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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 July 2005, 13:14 GMT 14:14 UK
'Deal of all deals' could follow IRA move

By Brian Rowan
BBC Northern Ireland security editor

It has taken 10 long years and more for the IRA to offer up this latest statement in which it signals that it is leaving violence behind and taking the entirely political path.

Two ceasefires, three acts of decommissioning and many broken down deals later, the IRA has ordered that all arms are dumped and that volunteers must not engage "in any other activities whatsoever".

IRA gunman
The IRA's statement has long been anticipated

This is the organisation's response to a speech by Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams in April.

In that he asked this question of the IRA: "Can you take courageous initiatives which will achieve your aims by purely political and democratic activity?"

The answer has now been given, penned by 'P O'Neill', and made public after weeks of debate inside the IRA organisation.

But the journey to this point began many years ago.

Step one in a long process of change was the "complete cessation of military operations" declared in August 1994.

But that ceasefire crumbled when an IRA bomb devastated part of the British capital in February 1996.

The London Docklands explosion came after a long stand-off involving the then Conservative government and the republican leadership.

By July 1997 - the date of the second ceasefire - Tony Blair was in Downing Street and the political process in Northern Ireland was now moving towards the type of inclusive talks that republicans had expected three years earlier

The ceasefire had not led to the type of inclusive peace talks that the IRA had been anticipating, but instead there had been a protracted argument over the issue of the organisation's guns.

As far as the government was concerned, political progress depended on there being decommissioning.

The IRA refused to budge, and the bombing of London in 1996 marked the end of a 17-month ceasefire.

It took the same length of time for it to be rebuilt - time and a change of British government.

By July 1997 - the date of the second ceasefire - Tony Blair was in Downing Street and the political process in Northern Ireland was now moving towards the type of inclusive talks that republicans had expected three years earlier.

Sinn Fein joined those discussions in September 1997 and, as that party entered, Ian Paisley and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) left.

Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley
SF and the DUP have become the dominant political forces

In the years since, the two parties have become the dominant political forces in Northern Ireland, and any deal-making beyond this latest IRA statement will require their agreement.

It was once unthinkable, but it came close to being achieved last December and it is about to be tried again.

Mr Paisley and his party were not part of the negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998, and, long after that historic deal, the arguments over the IRA's guns continued.

First there were arms inspections - international observers from Finland and South Africa were allowed to check a number of IRA dumps.

And, in their first report in June 2000, they said that the weapons and explosives were "safely and adequately stored" and could not be used without their detection.

By this time, however, unionists had expected that the decommissioning process would be completed, but it had yet to start.

'Assess the worth'

It was not until October 2001 that the IRA first put some of its arms "beyond use", and further decommissioning followed in April 2002 and October 2003.

They were secret acts, witnessed only by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning which was only able to give scant details on what had happened.

A Paisley demand for photographs was the straw that broke the back of a possible deal last December, and now the IRA has decided to act unilaterally and to complete the decommissioning process ahead of any further political negotiations.

It will take time to assess the worth of these latest words from the IRA and the actions it has ordered.

By the time of the second ceasefire Tony Blair was in Downing Street
By the time of the second ceasefire Tony Blair was in Downing Street

We do not yet know if this is the endgame.

And, after the Northern Bank robbery and the murder of Belfast man Robert McCartney, no-one is going to rush to that judgement.

It took time for the IRA to respond to Gerry Adams and to deliver its statement, and it will take even more time to work out where the political process goes from here.

The credibility of what the IRA has said and is about to do, will now be put to the test, but soon the focus will switch to the DUP.

This IRA statement could be the first step in a process aimed at securing the deal of all deals in Northern Ireland.





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