IRA Satisfies Disarmament Panel

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When the Irish Republican Army first faced demands to give up its arms and explosives almost a decade ago, an anonymous graffiti writer summed up its response on a Belfast wall: "Not a bullet, not an ounce."

Today, the same slogan might be more appropriate as an inventory of the IRA's arsenal — at least, according to the international panel appointed to oversee IRA disarmament. On Monday in Belfast, retired Canadian General John de Chastelain finally delivered the report he'd been waiting eight years to make: his international panel had spent the previous week observing the IRA decommission a vast array of weaponry, everything from a World War II-vintage machine gun to surface-to-air missiles. Using British and Irish intelligence reports on IRA arms as a guide, the general concluded that he had witnessed the disposal of the IRA's entire arsenal.

Since they'd spent years arguing that giving up their arms amounted to an unwarranted surrender, the IRA's reversal signals the extent to which Irish republicans have turned to politics as the path to pursuing their goal of a united Ireland. “We are closing the curtain on 700 years of Irish history,” said Father Alec Reid, a Catholic priest who had been invited, alongside a Protestant cleric, to witness the decommissioning with de Chastelain.

General De Chastelain's announcement ought to mean the removal of a huge obstacle to a lasting settlement in Northern Ireland. But unionists aren't sure whether to believe him. Under their own slogan — "No guns, no government" — they have pulled out of successive power-sharing governments in Belfast on the grounds that the IRA's guns would always be an unspoken threat to democracy. The comparatively moderate Ulster Unionist Party, long dominant in Protestant politics, was pushed into a humiliating second place in elections last year by Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, who have focused on the IRA's weapons for years. Now Paisley's party is arguing that they can't be sure the IRA got rid of all its guns and that they’re being asked to take De Chastelain’s assurances on trust.

The clock may, however, be running on that position. Another international panel is standing by to verify that the IRA has gone out of business, at which point unionists may begin to find it difficult to maintain it as the excuse for refusing to govern alongside their former enemies in the republican political movement Sinn Fein. But nobody is predicting any early breakthroughs.

Still, the decommissioning announcement was not without its lighter side: "I'm just waiting for the starting gun," General de Chastelain told reporters before he began delivering his report to a press conference. Then he paused, and added, "Perhaps I should rephrase that."