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Blair Challenges IRA to  Disband - 2002-10-17

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has called on the Irish Republican Army to disband in order to save the peace process in Northern Ireland. He made the call in a speech in Belfast Thursday.

The speech to Northern Irish civic leaders was billed as Mr. Blair's most important statement on the peace process there since the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998.

Mr. Blair said the accord to end three decades of violence in Northern Ireland had reached a critical turning point. He was referring to recent allegations that the IRA had used its political wing, the Sinn Fein party, to run a spy operation against the British government.

Mr. Blair suspended self-rule in Northern Ireland this week in response to the political crisis set off by the spy scandal.

In his speech, Mr. Blair said the continued existence of the IRA only provides an excuse for hard-liners from the pro-British unionist movement to reject Sinn Fein's participation in the government.

He called on the IRA to disband for the sake of the peace process. "We cannot carry on with the IRA half in, half out of this process," he said. "Not just because it isn't right anymore. It won't work anymore," he said. "Remove the threat of violence and actually the peace process is on an unstoppable path."

There is no sign that Mr. Blair's call will be heeded. A small group of Sinn Fein supporters protested outside of the hall where Mr. Blair spoke. Sinn Fein leaders say it is not fair to demand the IRA's disbandment while paramilitary groups that support the unionist cause continue to operate.