The 26-County Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, has broken with his Prime Minister by declaring that membership of the Provisional IRA will continue to be illegal despite its recent declaration of an end to its armed struggle.
Mr McDowell said that even if the group decommissioned its weapons and disbanded, it would still be an offence to be a member.
“The IRA remains an illegal organisation because its constitution is treasonable under the laws of this State,” he said.
He also said that the Government and the head of the independent arms decommissioning body, General John De Chastelain, could never be certain that the IRA had decommissioned its arsenal.
“Obviously in one technical sense it is impossible for him, you, me or anybody to know what’s hidden somewhere under a stone in a cave in the middle of some mountain range. We can’t be certain,” he said.
In an interview with the Irish broadcaster RTE, he added that he expected the IRA’s decommissioning to take place in the near future.
“I expect it to be one sequence of events and I expect it to be in a fairly rapid order. Obviously I don’t expect it all to be done by one single press of a button or one single act of decommissioning in one single place.”
Mr McDowell’s hardline position has been blamed on his chagrin at the controversial return to Ireland of the Colombia 3, despite facing a lengthy jail sentence in that country for training left-wing rebels.
The Irish taoiseach Bertie Ahern had suggested that the Provisional IRA could evolve into a form of veterans’ and commemoration body.
But McDowell declared: “(The IRA’s constitution) suggests that the IRA army council is the legitimate government of this State. It suggests the Government of which I have been elected is illegitimate.
“As long as those ends remain, it will not be the subject of a revocation by the Government as long as its rules and aims are as they stand,” he said.
Mr McDowell also dismissed the IRA offer to fully and unilaterally disarm. He called the IRA’s arsenal a political “dead duck” and described it as “their loss-making hardware division that they just want to close down.”
Mr McDowell yesterday denied that he and his small Progressive Democrats party were indulging in political posturing over the Colombia Three, given the widespread consensus that extraditing the three men will prove to be nigh impossible, and that other legal alternatives look remote.
“That is not the case,” he said.
“The gardai have arrested one individual and they are investigating one line of enquiry as I understand it.
“It’s not true to say that there’s nothing left to look at... Ireland will not become a haven for people who engage in activities abroad that are very damaging to this country’s interests,” he said.