Protestant politicians on Monday discounted official reports of a full disarmament by the Irish Republican Army, saying they wanted detailed proof before moving to reenter a power-sharing government with the British province's Catholic community.
"Today was to be the day when the gun was to be finally taken out of Irish politics," said Ian Paisley, 79, leader of the Democratic Unionists, Northern Ireland's largest Protestant political party. He condemned the lack of photographs and full listing of the quantity and type of weapons destroyed.
Paisley spoke after the head of an international commission announced in Belfast that the IRA's arsenal had been rendered "permanently unusable" in an operation witnessed by a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister.
Catholic leaders and the prime ministers of Britain and Ireland called it a historic breakthrough that could bring a final close to more than three decades of sectarian conflict that has claimed about 3,600 lives.
Officials in Britain and Ireland said they hoped the announcement would lead to the reinstatement of a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, bringing together parties representing Paisley's unionists, who want Northern Ireland to remain under British rule, and Sinn Fein's republicans, who want the province to be part of the Republic of Ireland.
Mitchel McLaughlin, an official of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, said he hoped the disarmament would prove "a defining and, hopefully, a liberating moment" that would promote "confidence and generosity in response from our opponents." But Paisley said the lack of detail "illustrates more than ever the duplicity and dishonesty" of the IRA and the British and Irish governments.
Analysts said that without Protestant acceptance that the IRA had given up its weapons, lasting peace in the province would be difficult to attain. Many Protestants in Northern Ireland believe they have been abandoned by a British government that has been too willing to make concessions to the IRA in return for the promise of peace.
Several Protestant paramilitary groups still operate in the province, and they, along with potential breakaway IRA factions that are angry about the disarmament, could continue as violent and destabilizing forces, analysts said.
"The North can be a deceptive place; it is not a done deal" that Paisley and other Protestant leaders will accept the disarmament, said Tim Pat Coogan, a historian and author who has written extensively about the IRA.
In 1998, leaders of the two communities reached a peace deal known as the Good Friday agreement. Failure of the IRA to fully disarm in subsequent years was viewed in the Protestant community as the main obstacle to full implementation of the accord. Because of the political deadlock, the province has been ruled from London since 2002.
In July, the IRA announced that it would get rid of all its weapons, and Monday's announcement was the follow-through to that. Many details of the disarmament were not disclosed, such as how guns were destroyed, the number of tons of explosives disposed of and where the weapons had been hidden. Many analysts have speculated that they were buried in bogs and hillsides in the Republic of Ireland.
But Gen. John de Chastelain, a retired Canadian military chief overseeing the process known here as "decommissioning," offered the most detail yet on the IRA's stockpile, much of which was financed by supporters in the United States during the 35-year armed conflict.
De Chastelain said it included surface-to-air missiles, AK-47 rifles, flame throwers, handguns, mortars and rocket launchers. He said the "very large quantities of arms" that he saw being "put beyond use" matched estimates of the IRA arsenal given to him by British and Irish security forces, further supporting his belief that "all the arms in the IRA's possession" have been made "permanently unusable."
The general said much of the weaponry was old, an apparent reference to the shipments of weapons the IRA received from Libya in the 1980s. He said that while some ammunition was in unopened boxes, some was loose in belts and gave the clear appearance of having been collected from individuals.
De Chastelain said the process was not as transparent as he would have liked. But, he said, his goal was to get rid of the arms, and in order to accomplish that, he had to agree to constraints insisted upon by the IRA. For example, IRA supporters have said photographs of the destruction of weapons would have enabled Protestant leaders to humiliate the IRA and claim that it had surrendered.
In an attempt to win more public confidence, a Catholic priest and a Protestant clergyman accompanied De Chastelain as he took an inventory of the weapons that were then to be destroyed. Both attended the news conference Monday, and they expressed complete confidence that the IRA had given up all its weapons.
The Rev. Harold Good, a Methodist minister, told reporters that the "experience of seeing this with our own eyes" would have made anyone a believer, "beyond any shadow of doubt."
In an interview, the Rev. Alec Reid, the Catholic priest, said that even until recent years, churchgoing "pious old ladies" who did not want the IRA to use its guns also did not want it to give them up because of the history and fear on either side of the conflict. He said the fact that the IRA did destroy them was a major achievement for peace.
The disposal of the weapons comes at a time when support for the IRA's violent campaign has largely dried up, here and abroad, in a world weary of terrorism.
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, lauded the decommissioning Monday, saying, "The weapons of the IRA are gone. And they are gone in a manner which has been witnessed and verified. . . . It is of real historic significance."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed an "important development in the peace process and one that we have been waiting for, for a long time."
In the United States, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said that "hopefully, this dramatic and historic step toward peace will be embraced by the unionist community and become a new dawn for the peace process."
But many unionists fear that their way of life is slowly disappearing as Catholics become more powerful in the province.
Peter Shirlow, a Protestant who teaches at the University of Ulster, said many unionists fear that some elements of the IRA opposed the disarmament and could still have weapons. He predicted that riots and sectarianism -- which flared several times this summer, notably in Protestant neighborhoods, and resulted in scores of injured -- would continue.
"This will not wash away those underlying problems," he said.
Sullivan reported from London.