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IRA Proposes to Lay Down Arms - 2001-08-06

The Irish Republican Army is proposing to lay down its arms, as the Northern Ireland peace process enters a critical phase.

Northern Ireland's international disarmament commission says the IRA is ready to put its weapons "completely and verifiably" beyond use.

The commission says the agreement has emerged from talks between the IRA and the disarmament body led by retired Canadian general John De Chastelain. The commission did not provide a timetable for the IRA to lay down its weapons, nor any other details.

But it calls the IRA plan the first step toward the total disarmament of Northern Ireland's biggest Catholic paramilitary group.

The announcement has drawn praise from Irish and British leaders.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern calls it a "historic development". Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, John Reid, says it provides the basis for "rapidly resolving the arms issue".

Gerry Adams, leader of the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, also hails the move. "Once again I believe that the IRA has demonstrated its commitment to the search for a lasting peace," Mr. Adams said. "And that commitment needs to be matched by all the political parties, who we believe should respond positively and constructively."

But Northern Ireland's Unionist leaders are questioning the IRA's sincerity. They say they want to see actual IRA disarmament and not just verbal promises.

The IRA's proposal was revealed just hours before the nationalists and unionists faced a deadline to respond to a joint British-Irish plan to save Northern Ireland's peace process.

The province's coalition government could collapse by Sunday if the parties reject the peace plan.