"Potentially this could be the most significant day in the Northern Ireland peace process since the Good Friday Agreement," A British government spokesman said.
In a day of carefully choreographed announcements, Prime Minister Tony Blair's office said the long-delayed elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly would be held Nov. 26. That could pave the way for restoration of a Catholic-Protestant administration for the British province.
An IRA statement that followed five hours later confirmed that the outlawed group had agreed with John de Chastelain, the retired Canadian general overseeing disarmament in Northern Ireland, to "decommission" more weaponry. A second IRA statement later confirmed that the action had happened. As with all IRA messages, the statements were signed "P. O'Neill."
However, in keeping with previous IRA disarmament moves in October 2001 and April 2002, the IRA offered no detail on the volume of weaponry discarded, nor on its method of disposal.
Protestant leaders complained that such secrecy would undermine Protestant support for reviving power-sharing.
As part of a push to revive power-sharing, the central goal of the Good Friday peace accord of 1998, Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern arrived in Northern Ireland to announce more details of their plans.
The IRA's two statements — which came a decade after the British and Irish governments launched efforts to coax the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party into normal political life — did not offer some of the specific promises sought by other parties to the 1998 deal.
In particular the Ulster Unionists, the major Protestant party that agreed in 1999 to form an administration that included Sinn Fein, has insisted that the IRA must stop recruiting and training, gathering intelligence on potential targets, and beating up criminal opponents within its hard-line Catholic power bases.
Republicans, who want to see Northern Ireland leave the United Kingdom and join the Irish Republic to the south, counter that pro-British paramilitary groups remain active in the province.
Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble planned to make a formal response to Tuesday's statements from the IRA and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, who reaffirmed his party's support for the complex 1998 pact.
The IRA was supposed to have scrapped all of its hidden weapons by mid-2000 under terms of the 1998 deal. It began the process in October 2001 but stopped in April 2002 with an estimated 100 tons of weaponry still outstanding.
In a speech Tuesday, Adams — a reputed IRA commander since the mid-1970s — offered his firmest commitment yet that the IRA would disarm and gradually fade away as a threat to Northern Ireland stability.
"The IRA leadership wants the full and irreversible implementation of the Good Friday agreement in all its aspects and they are determined that their strategies and actions will be consistent with this objective," Adams said.
"We are opposed to any use or threat of force for any political purpose. Sinn Fein wants to see all guns taken out of Irish society," Adams said.
In its first statement, the IRA said Adams' comment "accurately reflects our position."
De Chastelain, who has been assigned since 1997 to disarm all of Northern Ireland's illegal groups, offered no immediate comment.
Before Adams and the IRA issued their statements, senior Ulster Unionists said they were hoping for bigger IRA commitments.
"I hope we will witness the end of what we have long sought — the transition of Irish republicans from terror to democracy," said Michael McGimpsey, an Ulster Unionist member of the previous power-sharing administration.
Blair had canceled the Assembly election, originally slated for May, because of the IRA's refusal to keep disarming and to promise to halt all hostile activities. Without such commitments, Blair warned that Protestant voters would be likely to reject moderate Ulster Unionist candidates in favor of extremists unwilling to compromise with Sinn Fein.
Trimble, who infuriated many Protestants in late 1999 by forming a 12-member administration that included two members of Sinn Fein, says he will seek to revive that arrangement if the IRA confirms it will disarm fully and fade away as the 1998 deal envisioned.
Power-sharing collapsed in October 2002 after police accused Sinn Fein's top legislative aide of helping gather intelligence on potential IRA targets. Critics said the outlawed group was keeping open the option of resuming a campaign to abolish Northern Ireland that claimed more than 1,800 lives from 1970 to 1997.