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Breakthrough In N. Ireland Impasse

The Irish Republican Army has permitted an inspection of secret arms dumps for the first time in seven months, the inspectors announced Wednesday.

The surprise announcement, welcomed by some as a potential break in the bitter impasse over IRA weapons, came eight days before Northern Ireland elections that will put the British-linked province's 1998 peace accord to the test.

“We observed that the weapons and explosives continued to be safely and adequately stored. We remain confident that they cannot be used without our detection,” said a joint statement from Cyril Ramaphosa and Martti Ahtisaari, who work in cooperation with a disarmament commission.

Ramaphosa, a former African National Congress leader, and Ahtisaari, a former president of Finland, have now visited the IRA bunkers — somewhere in the Republic of Ireland, where the IRA hides most of its arsenal — three times since May 2000.

The last visit was in October, and Protestant parties had been growing increasingly impatient over what they said was IRA foot-dragging.

The IRA is permitting these inspections as part of a deal that month which revived Northern Ireland's joint Catholic-Protestant government. The dumps being monitored hold only a fraction of the IRA's estimated stockpile of guns, explosives and other weaponry.

Britain's secretary for Northern Ireland, John Reid, welcomed the announcement, saying he hoped it foreshadowed “significant progress on the putting of IRA weapons fully and verifiably beyond use.”

Northern Ireland's four-party coalition, the key objective of the 1998 accord, has included the IRA-linked Sinn Fein since its formation in December 1999, and the question of when, if ever, the IRA would begin scrapping its weapons in return has relentlessly dogged the power-sharing effort.

Wednesday's announcement was unlikely to ease political pressures within Northern Ireland's badly divided Protestant community, which has increasingly criticized such inspections as inadequate. The government leader, David Trimble, has vowed to resign — effectively forcing the coalition's collapse — if the IRA hasn't begun to destroy or hand over weapons by July 1.

Sinn Fein's larger moderate rival for Catholic votes, the Social Democratic and Labor Party, welcomed the announcement, but also said it expected the IRA to begin delivering soon on its May 2000 promise to put its weapons “beyond use,” a euphemism for disarmament.

At that time, the IRA said it would allow Ramaphosa and Ahtisaari to visit dumps in secret as an initial “confidence-building measure,” then later — and separately — open negotiations with the disarmament commission led by retired Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain.

That commission, established in 1997 shortly before the IRA called a cease-fire, has been waiting in vain for the IRA and Northern Ireland's two major outlawed Protestant groups to begin actually scrapping weapns.

In a terse two-sentence statement accompanying the Ahtisaari-Ramaphosa announcement, de Chastelain said he accepted their report and confirmed his commission had remained in verbal contact with an IRA negotiator. He didn't say whether that communication, which began in March, had produced any gains.

The 1998 pact had specified May 2000 as the deadline for the IRA and the two outlawed Protestant groups — the Ulster Defense Association and Ulster Volunteer Force — to have completely disarmed.

The latter two groups are electorally unpopular and have no role in Northern Ireland's government, making their refusal to disarm less politically sensitive.

Sinn Fein, by contrast, is hoping to take up to three of Northern Ireland's 18 seats in British Parliament away from Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party in the June 7 election.

The Ulster Unionists have suffered damaging splits ever since Trimble accepted the 1998 pact and gradually coaxed his party into government with Sinn Fein. A harder-line Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists, is hoping to outpoll the Ulster Unionists among Protestant voters and force Trimble's replacement with a more stubborn politician.

The British government, which retains considerable authority in Northern Ireland, has already suspended the local administration's powers once when Trimble appeared on the verge of being ousted.

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