The Irish Republican Army has scrapped its vast arsenal of guns and explosives in a landmark step toward ending more than three decades of political and religious violence in Northern Ireland, according to a source close to the independent weapons inspection commission that witnessed the disarmament process.
The weapons inspectors will report their findings Monday to the British and Irish governments, said the official, who insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The disarmament, which the IRA promised in a statement in July, was also confirmed by Martin McGuinness, a senior member of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing.
"The IRA's decision on July 28th to formally end its armed campaign has changed the political landscape in Ireland forever," McGuinness said in a statement issued Sunday night. "I am confident that tomorrow will bring the final chapter on the issue of IRA arms. I believe that Ireland stands on the cusp of a truly historic advance, and I hope that people across the island will respond positively in the time ahead."
The disarmament announcement, scheduled to be made at a news conference Monday given by John de Chastelain, the retired Canadian general who heads the weapons inspection commission, would be a historic breakthrough in the conflict between majority Protestants and minority Catholics that has killed more than 3,600 people since 1969. The British and Irish governments hailed as momentous the IRA's July announcement that it would disarm, but any such announcement is unlikely to completely convince the province's majority Protestant community that peace is at hand.
The disarmament, which officials said took place at secret locations in the Republic of Ireland, was also witnessed by two members of the clergy: the Rev. Harold Good, a former president of the Methodist Church in Ireland, and the Rev. Alex Reid, a Catholic priest. They are also expected to make a public statement Monday.
The Protestant side has cited the IRA's failure to disarm as the main obstacle to full implementation of the landmark 1998 Good Friday peace accords. British and Irish government officials hope that this step will enable a power-sharing government to be reestablished in Belfast, the Northern Ireland capital.
Protestant leaders, particularly the Rev. Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), have expressed deep skepticism about the IRA's intentions. They have also harshly criticized British Prime Minister Tony Blair for responding to the IRA's promise to disarm by dismantling some British military posts in the province and ordering sharp cuts in troop strength.
"It would be naive to take the IRA at its word," Ian Paisley Jr., a top official of the party headed by his father, said in a recent interview. The DUP has distanced itself from negotiations to implement the Good Friday accords, which outlined a power-sharing plan for the troubled province. Paisley said that no matter how many weapons the IRA gave up, it could still have more hidden or stored.
McGuinness, in his statement, said Monday's announcement was "about more than arms."
"It is about the reviving the peace process, it is about the future of Ireland," he said. "And this places an enormous responsibility on the British and Irish governments to finally implement the Good Friday agreement in all its aspects on issues like equality, human rights, policing, demilitarization and northern representation. It will also place a huge responsibility on the leadership of the DUP to reengage in the political process."
On Saturday, Sinn Fein's president, Gerry Adams, told thousands of supporters in Dublin, the Irish capital, that IRA disarmament would have "a huge impact" on peace efforts.
A senior Democratic Unionist, Jeffrey Donaldson, said the IRA's apparent refusal to provide photos or to use a Protestant minister nominated by his party as a witness meant that many Protestants would not fully believe the IRA moves, the Associated Press reported.
"I don't think we're going to get that level of transparency tomorrow, and I think that's most unfortunate," Donaldson said.
The IRA, which draws its support from among the province's Catholic minority, has waged a determined war of bombings and attacks, including in London and other British cities, in an attempt to rid Northern Ireland of British rule. Protestant loyalists, who support British rule, also formed paramilitary groups that have fought against the IRA. Many in Northern Ireland fear that extremist splinter groups on both sides will continue the violence and hinder the peace process.
Although Northern Ireland has become less violent in recent years, the IRA has been embroiled in controversies over a bank robbery and other criminal activity by its members. The killing earlier this year of Robert McCartney, a Catholic supporter of Sinn Fein, caused international uproar when his family broke the IRA's traditional code of silence and complained publicly about the group's thuggery.
In recent months, Belfast has been racked by spasms of violence in the Protestant community, where many people complain bitterly that they have been abandoned by the British government. At least five people have been killed in the past two months in battles between Protestant paramilitary groups. At least two more officers were injured this weekend.