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IRA Fading Away In Northern Ireland

The Irish Republican Army is fading away in Northern Ireland and poses no security threat to the British territory, international experts concluded Wednesday in another landmark for peacemaking.

The governments of Britain and Ireland heralded the report of the Independent Monitoring Commission as the effective obituary of the IRA. Both appealed to local British Protestant leaders to accept the experts' verdict and deepen, not weaken, their cooperation with Irish Catholics in a partnership government.

The 16-month-old coalition in Belfast has been threatening to unravel amid myriad disputes fueled, in part, by Protestant demands for the IRA to disappear following more than a decade of cease-fire.

British, Irish and Catholic leaders declared that the report from the four fact-finders - which include former directors of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Scotland Yard's anti-terror unit - should eliminate the IRA as a diplomatic barrier.

"This is a very important day ... and a moment when we should draw a line," said Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Shaun Woodward.

"This report demonstrates not only that PIRA has gone away, but that it won't be coming back," said Irish Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, using the outlawed group's full formal name of Provisional IRA.

And Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, whose party grew out of the IRA and today represents most Catholics in Northern Ireland, said the question of the IRA's future "has been dealt with definitively. This issue is gone."

But leaders of the major Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists, said they would not be rushed into developing greater trust in Sinn Fein, because the IRA could merely be hibernating.

First Minister Peter Robinson, who leads both the power-sharing administration and the Democratic Unionist Party, reiterated his long-standing demand for the IRA command, officially called the "army council," to announce its own disbandment.

He said the IRA army council must change "from a body that is not meeting to one that will never meet again," and Sinn Fein leaders must convince Protestants "that the IRA is out of business for good."

Power-sharing, the intended centerpiece of Northern Ireland's Good Friday peace accord of 1998, is facing renewed threats to its survival. The biggest dispute concerns whether Britain should transfer control of Northern Ireland's police and justice system to local hands, something that the British and Sinn Fein had both wanted to happen by May.

The Democratic Unionists are blocking this move, and Sinn Fein in turn has been blocking Cabinet meetings for the past three months. A confrontation looms at their next scheduled session Sept. 18 - and Sinn Fein has already warned it could withdraw from the administration if the dispute isn't resolved then.

In their report, the experts concluded that the IRA's seven-man army council was "no longer operational or functional" but it would not publicly announce resignations, retirements or disbandment.

The Provisional IRA killed about 1,775 people during a failed 1970-97 campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. In 2005, the group completed the handover of its hidden weapons dumps to disarmament officials and renounced violence for political purposes.

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