Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern on Wednesday predicted "an enormous change" in the Northern Ireland peace process "within days," as signs emerged that the Irish Republican Army was about to make a major declaration concerning disarmament.
Contacts intensified between Sinn Fein -- the IRA's political ally -- and the British and Irish governments this week following a weekend report that three senior Sinn Fein politicians had stepped down from the IRA's ruling army council.
That would open the way for major structural changes in the IRA, which fought a bloody, three-decade campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland until a cease-fire in 1997.
Irish Justice Minister Michael McDowell identified the men who stepped down as Sinn Fein's president, Gerry Adams, its chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, and Martin Ferris, a Sinn Fein representative in Ireland's Parliament and a convicted gun runner. The three have consistently denied belonging to the army council.
McGuinness traveled on Wednesday to the United States, traditionally a source of support for the IRA and Sinn Fein, adding to speculation that an IRA statement was imminent.
Speaking to reporters in Dublin before his departure, McGuinness declined to comment on the timing or content of an IRA statement. "The IRA have clearly indicated that they are involved in work. We need to give them space to complete that work," he said.
Sinn Fein called on the IRA in April to end its armed struggle after a series of high-profile crimes caused international outrage.
A major bank robbery in December and the murder of a Belfast man, Robert McCartney, in January, both blamed on IRA members, have put Sinn Fein under intense pressure to disband the paramilitary group. The incidents also brought harsh censure from traditional allies.
Leading Irish American politicians snubbed Adams during his visit to the United States in March for St. Patrick's Day.
A major statement from the IRA could help restart stalled talks on Northern Ireland's political future. But reconciliation is widely thought here to be a long way off, given the traditional enmity between pro-British Protestants and pro-Irish Catholics.
Talks on reviving an assembly set up under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to bring about joint Catholic-Protestant rule broke down at the end of last year. The British and Irish governments say IRA crime is blocking progress.
Members of the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Fein's main opponent, refuse to sit in government with the Catholic party until the IRA publicly disarms.