/ 26 September 2005

IRA destroys its arsenal

Northern Ireland took a potentially historic step on Monday towards a lasting peace with the formal announcement that the paramilitary Irish Republican Army (IRA) has destroyed all its weapons.

General John de Chastelain, the retired Canadian military chief overseeing the disarmament process, handed a report detailing the so-called weapons decommissioning process to the British and Irish governments.

“We are satisfied that the arms decommissioned represent the totality of the IRA’s arsenal,” De Chastelain, who witnessed the process along with two church representatives, told a press conference in Belfast.

“Over the past number of weeks, the members of the commission have engaged with the IRA representatives in the execution of our mandate to decommission arms,” he said in an opening statement.

“We have now reported to the British and Irish governments that we have observed and verified events to put beyond use very large quantities of arms, which we believe include all the arms in the IRA possession. We have also made an inventory of them.”

De Chastelain was flanked by Andrew Sens and Tauno Nieminen, his colleagues on the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, the body charged with paramilitary disarmament.

Also present were the two clergymen who witnessed and verified the IRA’s destruction of its weapons caches, one each from the Catholic and Protestant churches.

Methodist pastor Harold Good, also speaking on behalf of Catholic priest Father Alex Reid, was adamant the process is complete.

“We now wish to verify the truth of the statement on IRA decommissioning,” he told reporters, adding: “We are certain, utterly certain, about the exactitude of this report.”

Potential watershed

While long-awaited, De Chastelain’s report marks a potential watershed in Northern Ireland’s long trek towards a lasting peace, which began more than a decade ago with an IRA ceasefire.

That was followed in 1998 by the Good Friday peace deal, which introduced an elected assembly and a semi-autonomous cross-community government and called for disarmament by all paramilitary groups.

However, progress since then has been painfully slow. The assembly was suspended almost three years ago amid a breakdown in trust, and the longer the political deadlock lasted, the greater the fears the British-ruled region could slip back into violence.

Then, in July, the IRA announced it was ending its armed struggle for Northern Ireland to be united with the Republic of Ireland to the south in favour of political action, pledging also to destroy its weapons.

IRA weapons decommissioning has been the long-standing demand of politicians from Northern Ireland’s Protestant community, who overwhelmingly favour the continuation of British rule.


But earlier on Monday, the region’s biggest Protestant group, the Democratic Unionist Party, warned it would treat the claims of IRA action with scepticism given that disarmament had not been documented in photographs, as demanded by its leaders.

Mindful of this, De Chastelain’s report began a carefully choreographed series of events intended to make the announcement as credible as possible.

Statements were set to follow from the IRA and from its political wing, Sinn Fein; Northern Ireland’s biggest Catholic party; as well as the British and Irish governments.

According to experts, the IRA’s arsenal included Soviet-built SAM 7 surface-to-air missiles, rocket launchers, heavy machine guns, armour-piercing sniper rifles, about 1 000 Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles and large quantities of handguns.

The Catholic paramilitaries also had two tonnes of Semtex B, a powerful, odourless military explosive made in the former Czechoslovakia.

Almost half the 3 600 deaths in the conflict have been attributed to the IRA. — AFP