Within hours, though, the leading pro-British Protestant leader, David Trimble, dismissed the IRA’s move and said militants needed to do more before a power-sharing agreement could be put in place.
The day began with the announcement from Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office that elections, originally scheduled for May, would be held on Nov. 26. The British government decided to put the vote to select members for the fledgling Northern Ireland Assembly on hold after the collapse of the political process late last year.
“Potentially, this could be the most significant day in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday agreement,” the prime minister’s official spokesman told reporters at 10 Downing Street.
Shortly after the British government’s move, Gerry Adams, the head of the pro-Irish Sinn Fein, called on all sides in the dispute to fully embrace the political process first outlined in the Good Friday Accord signed in 1998. The accord outlined the creation of a power-sharing assembly that represented both pro-Irish, largely Catholic republicans and pro-British, largely Protestant unionists in the war-torn region.
“The IRA leadership wants the full and irreversible implementation of the Good Friday agreement in all its aspects and they are determined that their strategies and actions will be consistent with this objective,” Adams said.
By mid-day local time, the IRA had announced it would offer a large cache of weapons to the international disarmament commission established under the peace plan.
At 4 p.m. local time (11 a.m. EDT), the international commission announced it had overseen “a third event in which IRA weapons are put beyond use in accordance with the government scheme and regulations.”
“The arms comprise light, medium and heavy ordnance and associated munitions. They include automatic weapons, ammunition, explosives and explosive material,” former Canadian Gen. John De Chastelain said in statement. “I do want to make the point — and that is why we have indicated this time — that the amount of arms put beyond use was larger — I would say considerably larger — than the previous event.”
Members of the largest moderate pro-Irish party, the Social Democratic and Labor Party, welcomed the IRA’s move, while criticizing the time it has taken to act.
“People believed that five-and-a-half years ago the Good Friday agreement and its implementation was the basis for a full and final end of conflict. I am pleased that five-and-a-half years later the IRA are now saying so and are catching up with the rest of the people on the island so that we can all move forward together,” Alex Attwood, chairman of the SDLP, said.
But the largest political party, the pro-British loyalist Ulster Unionist Party, blasted the IRA, demanding a list of the weapons surrendered and saying the effort was too small to restart the political process.
“What we needed in this situation was a clear, transparent report on major acts of decommissioning, the nature of which would have a significant impact upon public opinion and demonstrate that we were in a different context,” Trimble, the UUP leader and first head of the Northern Ireland Assembly, told a news conference. “Unfortunately we have not had that.”
Despite Trimble’s statement, Blair told reporters he believed the militant group had agreed to end paramilitary violence.
“We are absolutely confident that the IRA have made a clear commitment to the cessation of all paramilitary activity and that the implementation of the Good Friday agreement is what brings this conflict to a close,” Blair said.
The unionist reaction dealt a significant setback to British and Irish efforts to restart the political process, but by late in the day, both Blair and his Irish counterpart said they hoped the UUP move would amount to “a last minute glitch.”
“In the end, it’s worth spending that extra bit of time in order to get the thing done, because we are very, very close to what I think would be a quite historic day for Northern Ireland,” Blair told reporters in Belfast.
Irish Taoiseach, or prime minister, Bertie Ahern cautioned meeting the UUP demands could prove complicated.
“It’s a very obvious position that David Trimble has raised, and we now have to see if we can overcome it,” Ahern said. “The resolution to that isn’t so obvious.”
Both sides hope to hold the elections in November, but the UUP has said it will not participate in an assembly with the more hard-line Sinn Fein as long as the IRA does not disarm.
Despite Protestant concern, Trimble agreed to participate in the initial Northern Ireland Assembly in 1999 and established a 12-member administration that included two Sinn Fein officials.
But the coalition collapsed in October 2002 after police accused Sinn Fein’s top legislative aide of spying for the IRA. Britain suspended the assembly after Trimble and the other unionists threatened to walk out.