The Irish Republican Army formally declared an end Thursday to its three-decade-long armed struggle against British rule in Northern Ireland and pledged to pursue its aims of a united Ireland through "exclusively peaceful means."
British and Irish leaders said they hoped the statement, brokered in negotiations between the IRA's political representatives and officials in London and Dublin, would revive the province's stagnant peace process and bring a final end to sectarian violence known as "the Troubles" that has killed more than 3,600 Catholics and Protestants since 1969.
The IRA has never made such an affirmative commitment to long-term peace and reconciliation, though it declared a cease-fire in 1997. British Prime Minister Tony Blair called the statement "a step of unparalleled magnitude," and White House spokesman Scott McClellan called it "potentially historic." But both said it must now be followed by concrete action.
In Northern Ireland, Protestant politicians who have led the fight to keep the province part of Britain were less enthusiastic, calling the statement inadequate and stressing that the IRA's pledges were so far only words.
"All IRA units have been ordered to dump arms," read the message, saying the steps would take effect at 4 p.m. Thursday local time. "All Volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programs through exclusively peaceful means. Volunteers must not engage in any other activities whatsoever."
The outlawed paramilitary organization also said it would reactivate "as quickly as possible" the process of disposing of its weapons -- which it suspended when peace talks broke down late last year -- and invited Protestant and Catholic clerics to serve as independent witnesses to the disarmament. The IRA has amassed tons of weapons and explosives over the years, most of them hidden in bunkers in the Republic of Ireland.
Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, called the declaration a "courageous and confident initiative" and challenged his political opponents in the Protestant community "to decide if they want to put the past behind them and make peace with the rest of the people of this island."
The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionists, the province's largest Protestant political party, said that "we will judge the IRA's bona fides over the next months and years based on its behavior and activity."
His son, Ian Paisley Jr., used stronger words. "It would be an act of unparalleled stupidity to accept the words of the Provisional IRA and the words alone," he told the BBC. "We want to see peace, but we're not going to be taken for a ride like some people. Other people may not have learnt from the IRA, but we have got the wounds and the injuries to learn from them."
But Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern noted the statement's unprecedented wording. "Today may be the day that peace replaced war, that politics replaced terror, on the island of Ireland," Blair said.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a longtime supporter of the province's Catholic community, said in a statement that he hopes the declaration means "we're finally nearing the end of this very long process to take guns and criminality out of politics in Northern Ireland once and for all."
The IRA's armed campaign -- born out of civil unrest and police repression in the late 1960s and early 1970s -- has been largely on hold since the cease-fire of 1997. The following year, politicians from various factions signed a power-sharing arrangement that was supposed to ensure equal rights and full political participation for the province's Catholic minority.
But local rule has been suspended for nearly three years, after allegations that the IRA was continuing such criminal activities as gunrunning and spying on its political rivals.
With support from the United States, the British and Irish governments have been seeking ways to get the two communities cooperating again and restore joint government. Protestant complaints that the IRA refused to give up its weapons emerged as a key point blocking agreement.
The republican movement -- so-called because it seeks to unite Northern Ireland with the overwhelmingly Catholic republic to the south -- suffered two recent setbacks that helped drive its leaders back to the negotiating table.
The first came when investigators publicly accused the IRA of the robbery of $50 million from a Belfast bank in December, an operation that damaged the organization's credibility and legitimacy in London, Dublin and Washington. Then in late January, IRA members allegedly killed a Catholic man in a brawl at a Belfast pub and tried to cover up the deed, an action that harmed its standing among hard-core supporters in blue-collar Catholic neighborhoods.
But beyond those problems, analysts say the IRA and the republican movement's leaders -- Adams and his deputy, Martin McGuinness -- became aware that in the world after Sept. 11, 2001, they could no longer sustain a paramilitary movement whose bombings and assassinations had terrorized civilians as well as soldiers.
Thursday's statement, read on a video by Seanna Walsh, a veteran IRA fighter and former prisoner, pointedly praised "the sacrifices of our patriot dead." It added, "We reiterate our view that the armed struggle was entirely legitimate."
The younger Paisley focused on this claim in his remarks. "This statement says absolutely nothing about the IRA disbanding," he said. "It justifies and legitimizes IRA atrocity after IRA atrocity. Atrocities, I may say, that are as bad as and in many instances worse than London suffered this July," he added, referring to the July 7 suicide bomb attacks that killed at least 56 people, including the four presumed bombers.
Residents in some of the working-class urban areas where the IRA has long ruled expressed fear that the organization's disarmament would leave them vulnerable to Protestant gangs. But relatives of some of the IRA's victims said the organization needed to loosen its grip on these neighborhoods and allow the province's revamped and reformed police force to take over.
If the IRA does not live up to its promise, warned Catherine McCartney, a sister of the man who was stabbed to death in Belfast in January, "then the next time someone is murdered in the same circumstances as our brother Robert, you will see the same thing happening with witnesses being intimidated and people not being brought to account."
Alan McBride, whose wife, Sharon, was among nine people killed by the IRA in a bombing of the Protestant Shankhill Road area in 1993, said the statement's claim that the conflict had been legitimate "was obviously put there to appease their hard-liners."
"As someone who was directly impacted by IRA violence, I don't understand and will never understand how you could legitimize the killing of innocent people," he added in an interview.
British officials released Sean Kelly, one of the men convicted of the bombing, from prison this week -- a move that deeply angered unionists even though it helped open the way for the declaration.
Political scientist Richard English, author of a recent history of the IRA, said that from the movement's viewpoint the statement was deeply significant. "This is an organization that defines itself by the need for violence as the way forward in politics," he said. "When it says it no longer requires violence, that's a huge change."
Still, he added, unionists were unlikely to be impressed because they had been disappointed by the organization's perceived failure to abide by previous commitments. "Unionists have just lost all sense of trust in what the IRA say, and they are probably going to want to have an awful lot of proof of action before they'll trust it," he said.
Special correspondent Mary Fitzgerald in Belfast contributed to this report.