updated 9/23/2005 1:32:24 PM ET 2005-09-23T17:32:24

The outlawed Irish Republican Army is on the verge of disposing of its stockpiled arms in a long-sought peace move, Sinn Fein leaders said Friday after their first meeting with the Irish government in eight months.

The British and Irish governments have also forecast that the IRA could confirm it has scrapped its weapons arsenal by the middle of next week.

On July 28, following years of diplomatic pressure from both governments, the IRA announced it had formally renounced violence for political purposes and would disarm fully in cooperation with John de Chastelain, a retired Canadian general.

Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness spent two hours discussing the still-secret IRA moves and its consequences with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and senior Cabinet ministers.

"The work between de Chastelain and the IRA needs to be left between them, and the less interference there is the better," said McGuinness, who is scheduled to travel Tuesday to Washington to seek U.S. political backing for whatever IRA moves are revealed.

‘Bright and better future’
McGuinness said Ahern had been left in no doubt that "we are on the threshold of something very, very important. There is a bright and better future ahead for all of us, and we just hope that everyone will take advantage of what I am convinced is a tremendous opportunity."

Ahern did not comment. Two others at the meeting, Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern and Justice Minister Michael McDowell, both described the talks as "fruitful" but declined to discuss specifics.

Fueling speculation of imminent IRA moves, Sinn Fein is planning its biggest Dublin rally in years Saturday. British Prime Minister Tony Blair addresses his ruling Labour Party's annual conference Tuesday, while the Irish parliament reconvenes from its summer recess the following day.

The IRA has observed an open-ended truce since 1997 after killing nearly 1,800 people in a 27-year campaign to overthrow Northern Ireland by force. The IRA was supposed to have disarmed fully by May 2000 under terms of Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord.

But the underground group refused to start the secretive process until October 2001 and halted it two years later, with most of its stockpiled weapons still hidden in dumps in rural parts of the Republic of Ireland.

The IRA's refusal to disarm helped undermine the central goal of the 1998 peace deal, a joint Catholic-Protestant administration that included Sinn Fein. The four-party coalition suffered several breakdowns and collapsed in 2002.

Negotiations to revive power-sharing narrowly ended in failure in December, when the IRA refused to allow its disarmament to be publicly documented. Without such evidence, the major Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists, refused to share power with Sinn Fein.

Within days of that breakdown, the IRA was accused of mounting the world's biggest cash robbery Dec. 20, when gangs took two families of Northern Bank employees hostage and forced the employees to clear out $50 million from the bank's central Belfast vault.

The Irish government cut off public diplomatic contact with Sinn Fein after the raid.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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