Goals for Sinn Fein lead IRA to lay down weapons

The Irish Republican Army finally played the disarmament card after years of political poker with Great Britain -- its about-face seems driven by electoral ambitions.


Twenty years ago, Irish Republican Army smugglers came back from Libya
with the weapons of their dreams.

In underground bunkers they stored an arsenal big enough to last a
lifetime: 130 tons of guns, rocket launchers, grenades and land mines,
even a few flamethrowers and surface-to-air missiles. The crucial prize
was four tons of Semtex plastic explosives.

Today, the bunkers are officially empty, offering the most conclusive
evidence possible that the IRA's 1997 cease-fire is for good.

The huge weapons stockpile was a powerful asset in a protracted poker
game with Britain that reaped a string of concessions for the IRA and
its allied Sinn Fein Party.

Why then -- especially when the movement long denounced this step as
humiliation and surrender -- has the disarmament card finally been

The about-face appears to have little to do with hopes of reviving
Catholic-Protestant cooperation, the central failed goal of Northern
Ireland's 1998 peace accord, and much more to do with the swelling
electoral ambitions of Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein in the past five years has already grown to become the biggest
Catholic-backed party, whose involvement in power-sharing is now

But the party is even more focused on growing in the Republic of
Ireland, where elections in 2006 or 2007 could allow Sinn Fein to become
a coalition partner to Prime Minister Bertie Ahern's long-dominant
Fianna Fail Party.

Malachi O'Doherty, a veteran Belfast commentator, noted that if the IRA
had really wanted to promote power-sharing in Northern Ireland, it would
have disarmed in line with the 1998 pact -- which envisaged a quick
start and completion by May 2000.

Instead, the IRA began offering weaponry to disarmament officials only
in October 2001, by which time Protestant sentiment had already turned
decisively against cooperation with Sinn Fein.

Power-sharing collapsed in 2002 amid growing doubts about IRA
intentions. The moderate Ulster Unionists, whose Nobel Peace
Prize-winning leader David Trimble took a gamble by sharing power with
Sinn Fein without disarmament up front, were electorally crushed by the
hard-line Democratic Unionists of Ian Paisley, an anti-Catholic preacher
and veteran opponent of power-sharing.

''Their goal has been to fracture the enemy over this issue, by saying
it would never happen, and then by procrastinating interminably,''
O'Doherty said. ``They have effectively destroyed the Ulster Unionist
Party and thrown the Democratic Unionist Party into disarray, and for
their troubles attracted most of the Catholic votes in Northern

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has already promised to meet a string
of Catholic demands: Troop strength in Northern Ireland will be cut in
the next two years to a peacetime garrison of 3,000, and most army bases
will close; an overwhelmingly Protestant local regiment will be
disbanded; IRA fugitives from justice will be allowed home without fear
of prison; and Sinn Fein will even get the chance to oversee Northern
Ireland's police and justice system in a renewed power-sharing

Paisley, reflecting the Protestant community's widespread distaste for
working with Sinn Fein, said he doesn't believe the IRA has fully

He cites the IRA's well-documented status as Ireland's biggest
underworld organization, robbing banks and smuggling fuel and cigarettes
as part of rackets worth more than an estimated $25 million a year.

Von: 27 September 2005 (The Miami Herald), By SHAWN POGATCHNIK, Associated Press

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