By Ray Fleming
YESTERDAY'S announcement by the Irish Republican Army that it has ordered an end to its armed campaign after 36 years and will undertake observed decommissioning of its weapons, was in Tony Blair's words,“a step of unparalleled magnitude”. It re-opens the possibility of the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement of 1998 including the resumption of power–sharing government by parties representing the Protestant and Roman Catholic communities of Northern Ireland. In the longer term it also makes possible the re-union of the six counties of Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic if this were to be approved in a referendum. The IRA has only itself to blame if some of the reactions to yesterday's announcement were less effusive than Mr Blair's; in the past the IRA's public statements have required careful analysis to establish their precise meaning and the words have not always been followed by complementary action. However, that does not excuse the knee-jerk negative response from Ian Paisley, leader of the main Protestant party, who could not even for once quell his bigoted dislike of Catholics. This was an occasion on which a statesmanlike reaction would have been appropriate but it was not forthcoming. A more useful guide to the importance of the IRA statement came from David Hume, the former SDLP leader who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with David Trimble. He urged the British and Irish governments to meet immediately with all the parties in Northern Ireland in order to effect all the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. The question marks that remain over the IRA's change of heart are principally to do with the speed with which complete disarmament will be implemented and verified and also with the extent to which IRA members will follow the orders of their leaders, especially in the grey area of violent activities that are more criminal than political. None the less, yesterday's commitment to achieving objectives through “exclusively peaceful means” and the instruction that “volunteers must not engage in any other activities whatsoever” could hardly be clearer. Suddenly, at an otherwise difficult time, there is renewed hope in one part of the United Kingdom.


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