For the past 36 years, the Irish Republican Army has been waging an armed campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland. The IRA has been fighting the British Army and security forces as well as pro-British paramilitary groups as it tried to reach its ultimate goal, a united Ireland. More than 3,600 people have been killed during the past three decades that have come to be known as "The Troubles."
In a statement released at the end of July, the IRA said it has formally ordered an end to its armed campaign. It instructed its units, in the statement's words, "to dump arms" and said IRA members must now focus on "purely political and democratic programs through exclusively peaceful means." The statement also called on IRA volunteers not to engage "in any other activities."
The British and Irish governments welcomed the IRA decision, but in Northern Ireland, reaction was mixed, split along sectarian lines. Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA reacted positively while the largest pro-British party -- the Democratic Unionists -- urged caution.
Stephen O'Reilly is Deputy Editor of Belfast's Irish News, a newspaper reflecting the views of the Nationalist community that favors union with Ireland. He says the IRA decision to renounce violence is a very important development. However the reaction within his community has been far more muted compared to 1997 when the IRA declared a ceasefire. He says, "And if you were to compare it to what happened seven or eight years ago, we had cavalcades of cars, we had all sorts of celebrations, all sorts of protests from various other people. This time it's been slightly more muted and it's probably a little bit of war weariness, for want of a better word, if that's not too ironic - war weariness in the sense that this has been a long, tortuous process and for every step forward, there appears to have been half a step backwards."
On the other side of the sectarian divide, there also appears to be a sense of war weariness. But the Unionist side -- those who favor Northern Ireland's continued union with Great Britain -- don't take the IRA's words at face value. Austin Hunter is Editor of the Belfast Newsletter, a newspaper with close ties to the pro-British community.
Mr. Hunter says, "As far as the Unionists are concerned, they just want to see the words and the promises of the IRA turned into action, or I suppose, in a way turned to 'inaction'. The fact that they will stop their paramilitary activities, they will stop their criminality and we will all be allowed to have peace and prosperity."
Experts say monitoring the IRA's commitment to lay down its weapons will be crucial in reviving the Northern Ireland power-sharing agreement between Nationalists and Unionists, Catholics and Protestants.
Paul Bew is an expert on Northern Ireland, teaching at Queen's University in Belfast. He has written extensively on "The Troubles" and says while the IRA statement makes clear the armed struggle is over, it omits one essential point.
According to Professor Bew, "The IRA is not disbanding. It is retaining its mission statement.
It is maintaining still the right to launch a campaign of armed struggle. So, in some ways, it remains still a subversive organization. And therefore remains, as the Irish government has made clear since the statement came out, an illegal organization in Irish society. It has not moved itself to the point where it ceased to be illegal."
Mr. Bew says the crucial part of the IRA's statement is when the paramilitary group urges its members to refrain from engaging in what it broadly calls "any other activities." Mr. Bew says those activities have contributed in destabilizing the Northern Ireland political process.
Mr. Bew says, "And the things that have harmed trust have been, for example, the FARC episode when some IRA people were convicted of associating in Colombia with FARC -- the FARC movement in Colombia, which the (U.S.) State Department regards as a terrorist movement. There was a gun running episode in Florida in which there were convictions. There was a massive bank robbery in Belfast in the last few months involving, I think you would say about 40-million dollars which the security forces on both sides of the border -- Dublin and Belfast -- say was carried out by the IRA."
Mr. Bew says once again, verifying that the IRA has indeed ended all those "other activities" will be a challenge.
Experts say the IRA's decision to publicly announce an end to its armed struggle against Britain comes at a very opportune time for Prime Minister Blair, when London has been the target of terrorist attacks from Islamic extremists. Mr. Bew says that permits the security forces to focus on the recent terrorist attacks and not face a war on two fronts.
Dana Allin is a security expert with the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. He says there is a difference between groups like the IRA and the al-Qaida network.
Mr. Allin says, "One of the things that a famous terrorism analyst said about old terror groups like the IRA is that they were interested in having a lot of people watching, but not a lot of people dead: in other words, a kind of mass casualty campaign would work against their goals by undercutting any possibility of popular support. The kinds of statements and actions you have from (Osama) bin Laden and groups that are affiliated with his al-Qaida network are sort of the language of total war - and what's more, an almost genocidal war, in the sense that it is directed against killing civilians on the largest possible scale."
While in no way condoning IRA violence, Mr. Allin says the paramilitary group did provide coded warnings to security forces before beginning a bombing campaign. He says that is not the case with this new radical Islamic terrorism, making the work of security forces that more difficult.
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