The Irish Republican Army has finally done what its critics have long demanded. Last week it formally announced that it was ending its armed campaign to free Northern Ireland from British rule. If carried out, this would, says British Prime Minister Tony Blair, constitute “a step of unparalleled magnitude” in Irish history. That is a big “if.” Given the IRA’s history, skepticism is in order. But there is every reason to believe that the IRA’s conversion might be genuine. If so, the peace process could at last be back on track.

The IRA has fought for over 30 years to get the British out of Northern Ireland. The campaign has resulted in more than 3,500 deaths and left a deep and bitter division that runs through cities, neighborhoods and even some families. At regular intervals, both sides of the political and religious divide have tried to reach out, but those attempts have invariably failed. The usual cause of the breakdown has been the IRA’s insistence on the right to retain its weapons and the right to resume the armed struggle. All too often, those demands have been punctuated by killings that proved the group’s commitment to the political process was superficial at best, no matter what its political arm insisted.

Last week’s announcement appears to end that equivocation. The statement released by the IRA was direct: “All IRA units have been ordered to dump arms. All volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programs through exclusively peaceful means.” The move was made “to advance our republican and democratic objectives, including our goal of a united Ireland. We believe there is now an alternative way to achieve this and to end British rule in our country.”

Significantly, the IRA also promised “to complete the process to verifiably put its arms beyond use.” The disposition of the group’s weapons caches — vast hidden stockpiles — has been a sticking point in the on-again, off-again peace process that was inaugurated in 1998. Because the IRA was never defeated, it refused to publicly destroy its weapons. Instead, on three occasions it “decommissioned” weapons in front of John DeChastelain, a retired Canadian general who heads a commission that is overseeing disarmament.

While pride may have been the chief motivation behind the IRA’s position, it also ensured that doubts would remain about the group’s commitment to peaceful, political change. The IRA has now invited two clerics, a Catholic and a Protestant to “testify” to its disarmament.

What prompted the IRA change of heart? The most important factor may have been the revulsion that followed the killing of a Catholic man by suspected IRA guerrillas in January. That murder turned many of the group’s backers, including those in the United States, against it. The recent London bombings and the war against terror may also have contributed to IRA thinking about the way it is perceived and the diminishing acceptance of any form of violence to bring about political change.

While the announcement is welcome — and its clarity makes the IRA’s traditional ability to hedge extremely difficult — actions that show an irreversible commitment to peace are the real measure of progress. The IRA’s political partners and opponents, the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in particular, will only be convinced by such steps. The DUP’s opinion matters: It routed more moderate Protestant parties in general elections last year, and its demand for proof of the destruction of IRA arms stopped the peace process in its tracks. The DUP will block a resumption of local government — in which it would share power with Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political arm — as long as possible to test the IRA’s true intentions.

Opponents of the IRA note that last week’s announcement does not call for the group to disband. This is worrisome given the IRA’s involvement in crime, such as drug running and bank robbery. The statement released last week says that “Volunteers must not engage in any other activities whatsoever,” a presumed reference to criminal activities. Many observers worry that crime is too profitable and confers too much power on IRA members for them to give it up. They note that the decision has not yet been ratified by a full convention of IRA activists, and therefore may not command complete obedience by all members.

If the conversion is genuine, however, there is a way to end the doubts. The IRA leadership can destroy its weapons in a transparent manner. It will renounce all criminal and paramilitary action and turn in to Northern Irish authorities for punishment anyone who violates that declaration. Only then will the world be reassured that the IRA is as committed to peace, justice and nation-building as its political representatives say it is.

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