updated 9/26/2005 9:41:28 AM ET 2005-09-26T13:41:28

The Irish Republican Army has put its arsenal of weapons “beyond use,” the Canadian general who has supervised the tortuous process said Monday.

“We are satisfied that the arms decommissioning represents the totality of the IRA’s arsenal,” said John de Chastelain, a retired Canadian general who since 1997 has led efforts to disarm the outlawed IRA.

The material included ammunition, rifles, machine-guns, mortars, missiles, handguns and explosives, he told a news conference.

All the weapons were rendered “permanently inaccessible or permanently unusable,” said de Chastelain, who began working on the process eight years ago.

The IRA permitted two independent witnesses — a Methodist minister and a Roman Catholic priest close to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams — to view the secret disarmament work conducted by officials from Canada, Finland and the United States.

De Chastelain, who in recent weeks has been in secret locations overseeing the weapons destruction, earlier in the day gave representatives of the British and Irish governments a confidential report on his work.

Biggest stumbling block
The breakthrough should smash the biggest stumbling block in Northern Ireland’s peace process since Britain opened negotiations with Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party, a decade ago.

Unfortunately, most politicians and analysts agree, the IRA move comes years too late to kickstart the revival of a Catholic-Protestant administration, the central dream of Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord. That complex, landmark agreement required the IRA to disarm by May 2000.

Years of denial and delay have sharpened Protestant distrust of Sinn Fein. Moderates willing to take risks were trounced in elections by hard-liners.

The Rev. Ian Paisley, whose uncompromising Democratic Unionist Party represents most Protestants today, has dismissed the coming IRA moves as inadequate. Paisley wants photographs, a detailed record and a Paisley-approved Protestant clergyman to serve as an independent witness.

The IRA insists: No photos, and witnesses of its own choosing.

“Will unionist demands for open, verifiable, photographed and witnessed decommissioning be adhered to or not?” Paisley said. “The day for deception is over. The day for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth has come.”

Some wiggle room
The IRA declared its 35-year campaign to overthrow Northern Ireland by force — which claimed 1,800 lives before its 1997 suspension — officially over in July.

Members had been commanded to “dump arms,” the IRA said, but wasn’t explicit about whether that meant every one. This left wiggle room to retain firearms for crime, intimidation and self-protection.

Britain first demanded IRA arms-decommissioning — a deliberately vague term designed to give the IRA maximum flexibility to decide how weapons should be discarded — in December 1993, billing it as the best practical way for the IRA to demonstrate it had renounced violence.

The British focus on weapons reflected the view that the IRA hit the weapons-supply jackpot in the mid-1980s, when Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi shipped the IRA more than 130 tons of weaponry in four shiploads. The IRA couldn’t quit, the reasoning went, when it was much better armed than ever before.

The IRA’s stockpile, particularly tons of plastic explosives, represented an ability to bomb London for decades if desired. Only if the IRA gave it up, Britain insisted, would Sinn Fein gain a place in negotiations on Northern Ireland’s future.

The IRA didn’t budge, and abandoned a 1994 cease-fire with a two-ton truck bomb in London’s financial district in February 1996. When Prime Minister Tony Blair rose to power in 1997, he allowed Sinn Fein into talks with a renewed cease-fire but no disarmament. Since then, keeping Protestant politicians on the road to compromise with Sinn Fein has been a constant battle.

Arguments over whether the IRA has fully disarmed appear certain.

De Chastelain has said he will use Libya’s lists of the weaponry it supplied the IRA as a baseline for estimating whether the IRA has fully disarmed. But nobody besides the IRA can say how much weaponry it has acquired from smugglers in the United States, former Yugoslavia and eastern Europe over the past decade.

IRA weapons-smuggling unit
In 2000 — the same year the IRA promised to disarm — the FBI busted an IRA weapons-smuggling unit after it had shipped more than 100 handguns from Florida in packages disguised as children’s toys and Christmas presents.

Some of those guns have been forensically linked to IRA killings of several paramilitary and criminal opponents, including drug dealers and an IRA dissident. Police also have seized IRA stashes of recently produced bullets.

Police say the IRA used handguns and hostage-taking expertise to carry out several huge robberies in Belfast last year, including a $50 million raid on the Northern Bank in December — the biggest cash theft in history.

But IRA members armed with steel clubs and knives caused an even bigger political storm in January, when they killed a Catholic civilian, Robert McCartney, for arguing with IRA members in a Belfast pub.

His family, defying the usual IRA threat to shut up or face violent eviction, took its campaign for justice to President Bush and European Union leaders — and highlighted the fact that Sinn Fein still rejects the authority of Northern Ireland’s police force.

“The Northern Bank robbery and the murder of Robert McCartney demonstrate that the IRA does not require crates of Kalashnikov rifles or surface-to-air missiles to destabilize and derail the peace process. It just needs a knife,” said veteran Northern Ireland journalist Ed Moloney, author of the critically acclaimed “Secret History of the IRA.”

“The problem is no longer the quality and quantity of the IRA’s weapons,” he said. “The problem has become the existence of the IRA itself.”

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