Final steps of Northern Ireland’s slow journey to disarmament detailed in new report

By Shawn Pogatchnik, AP
Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Report details last acts of NIreland disarmament

DUBLIN — The governments of Ireland and Britain praised their disarmament commission Wednesday and published its final achievements in removing weapons from Northern Ireland’s underground armies.

Both governments in 1997 asked Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain to persuade a half-dozen militant factions to surrender their hidden arsenals. That mission finally ended last month with a flurry of weapons moves.

Wednesday’s publication noted that de Chastelain and his American and Finnish deputies oversaw at least seven secret acts of disarmament from October to February, when the Anglo-Irish legislation empowering them to collect the outlaws’ weaponry expired.

“No one has done more than the (disarmament) commissioners and their staff to remove the gun from politics in Ireland. We owe them a great debt of gratitude,” said Irish Justice Minister Dermot Ahern.

Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Shaun Woodward, said the disarmament officials’ recent weapons disposals were “extremely productive” and reflected “the culmination of years of painstaking work.”

Several illegal groups had balked for a decade at disarming, a goal of Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord, but finally moved as the disarmament law was close to expiring. The law permitted militants to surrender weapons without fear that they would be arrested. The weapons also were not permitted to be forensically analyzed for DNA or ballistic links to any of the 3,700 killings in the Northern Ireland conflict.

Disarmament demands heavily shaped Northern Ireland’s peace process from its infancy. Britain began calling for the Provisional Irish Republican Army to disarm even before the anti-British group called its 1994 cease-fire.

Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord made the disarmament of all outlawed paramilitary groups a formal goal, with most pressure falling on the Provisional IRA, the best-armed and most politically influential group. No group met the pact’s goal of full disarmament by mid-2000.

The Provisional IRA disarmed from 2001 to 2005, paving the way for a revival of a Catholic-Protestant government for Northern Ireland involving the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party.

The two major British Protestant paramilitary groups — the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defense Association, which called a joint truce in 1994 — finally followed suit starting in mid-2009.

Wednesday’s publication spelled out the most recent disarmament moves. But de Chastelain declined to provide any precise accounting of the types or volumes of weapons involved. Such secrecy was a condition for gaining the outlaws’ cooperation.

De Chastelain’s report said he oversaw destruction of “substantial quantities of arms and ammunition … as well as some explosives and explosive devices” held by the Ulster Defense Association and two breakaway factions of the Protestant vigilante group in December, January and February.

Two small anti-British groups, the Irish National Liberation Army and the Official IRA, also handed over what both groups insisted were their entire weapons stockpiles. The INLA, which ceased fire in 1998, surrendered guns, ammunition, explosives and explosive devices in December and February.

The report said representatives of the Official IRA — which called a 1972 cease-fire but continued to wage deadly feuds for decades with other IRA factions — insisted that the guns and ammunition they surrendered in October and January represented “all they could recover of stocks that have been inactive over a number of years.”

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