updated 10/4/2006 11:32:50 AM ET 2006-10-04T15:32:50

The Irish Republican Army has begun reducing its membership and shut down key units responsible for weapons-making, arms smuggling and training, an expert panel reported Wednesday in findings designed to spur a revival of Catholic-Protestant cooperation in Northern Ireland.

The British and Irish governments warmly welcomed the 60-page assessment of the Independent Monitoring Commission, a four-man panel that includes former directors of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the anti-terrorist unit of Scotland Yard.

In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair said “the door is now open for a final settlement in Northern Ireland.”

‘Run down its terrorist capability’
The assessment reported that the IRA — which last year declared a formal end to its campaign to overthrow Northern Ireland by force and handed its weapons stockpiles to disarmament chiefs — had recently shut down three command units and “run down its terrorist capability.”

The report said the IRA has disbanded military structures, including the departments responsible for weapons procurement, engineering and training, and it had cut back rank-and-file members and stopped payments to them, the report said.

“We do not believe that PIRA is now engaged in terrorism,” it added, using the group’s full formal name of Provisional IRA. “We do not believe that PIRA is undertaking terrorist-type training. We do not believe that PIRA has been recruiting. ... The leadership is seeking to reduce the size of the organization. We have no evidence of targeting, procurement or engineering activity.”

The commission said the leadership of the IRA does not consider a return to terrorism as in any way a viable option and it continues to direct its members not to engage in criminal activity.

“These positive and clear-cut findings are of the utmost importance and significance. They are evidence that the security landscape in Northern Ireland has been radically altered,” Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said.

In Belfast, Northern Ireland, Secretary Peter Hain called on leaders of the province’s British Protestant majority “to recognize that the paramilitary situation, in particular the situation of the IRA, has changed absolutely fundamentally and radically.”

“Is there now a security threat from the IRA? The answer’s no,” Hain said, adding: “I do not believe anybody thinks that the IRA can come back as a war machine. That is over for them, they have chosen a different, democratic path.”

High hopes for summit
Britain and Ireland timed the report’s publication to boost hopes of progress in a negotiating summit Oct. 11-13 involving Protestant leaders and Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party that represents most of Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority. Blair and Ahern, whose close cooperation over the past decade has underpinned the entire peace process, will jointly oversee the talks.

Both governments have given the rival factions a Nov. 24 deadline to revive a power-sharing administration in line with Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace accord of 1998. Otherwise, Britain says it will dissolve Northern Ireland’s provincial legislature and instead will pursue more intensive cooperation with the Republic of Ireland — a threat designed to pressure Protestant leaders, who oppose southern Irish involvement in Northern Ireland.

Power-sharing was at the heart of the complex Good Friday deal. But a four-party administration established 18 months after that pact suffered repeated breakdowns and collapsed in October 2002 over an IRA spying scandal. The major Protestant-backed party, the Democratic Unionists, says it will not cooperate with Sinn Fein until that party drops its policy of refusing to cooperate with Northern Ireland’s police force.

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