The announcement by the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) that it has decommissioned its weapons has been strongly welcomed by the main political parties in Ireland but greeted with condemnation by hardline republican groups and mixed reactions from its own supporters.
In a statement issued in the name of the INLA leadership today, it was confirmed that the group has disposed of its arms in recent weeks through the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning arms body, headed by Canadian general John de Chastelain.
A spokesman for the Irish Republican Socialist Movement (IRSP), of which INLA is part, said last October that the group was ending its armed struggle. There was no commitment to decommissioning at the time and it was unclear that the group intended to surrender any weaponry.
The announcement comes just a day before a deadline for paramilitary decommissioning set by British Direct Ruler Shaun Woodward. Legislation that allowed armed groups to dispose of their weaponry without fear of prosecution is due to run out tomorrow.
IRSP spokesman Martin McMonagle told a press conference in Belfast this morning that the group had disarmed.
“We make no apology for our part in the conflict,” Mr McMonagle said.
“We believe that conditions have now changed in such a way that other options are open to revolutionaries in order to pursue and ultimately achieve our objectives.”
He said the INLA had been on ceasefire for 12 years and had now handed over all its weapons to work on encouraging political progress.
“We can also confirm that the INLA has disarmed through a joint facilitation group consisting of local, a national and an international organisation. This was done in a process in accordance with international standards,” he said. “We hope that this will further enhance the primacy of politics ... and that it will in time unite and advance the working class struggle in Ireland.”
The consultation group included Irish trade union leaders and an academic, who worked with the IICD. The trade unionists today confirmed they had witnessed the destruction of a substantial amount of weaponry.
The INLA was formed in 1975 and became notorious as an erratic and fractious organisation until it called a “complete ceasefire” in 1998.
Three INLA members: Patsy O’Hara, Kevin Lynch and Michael Devine - along with seven IRA members - died during the 1981 hunger strikes.
Its biggest attack was in Ballykelly, County Derry in 1982 which killed 11 British soldiers and six civilians were killed. Among its most high-profile attacks was the assassination in 1979 of Conservative MP Airey Neave, the shadow British Direct Ruler in Ireland.
A second IRSP spokesman, Willie Gallagher, said the INLA would not apologise for its armed campaign. Questioned about the Neave assassination, he said Airey Neave was a “casualty of war. We have no regrets whatever about that particular action,” he said.
“We viewed Airey Neave as an enemy combatant and a casualty of war. Of course, we do sympathise with his family, like all families that have been bereaved on both sides,” Mr Gallagher said. “We do regret all deaths, but we believe that deaths such as Airey Neave were necessary in the conflict and our prosecution of the war.”
Sinn Fein Assembly member Gerry Kelly said the peace process has ensured that a peaceful and democratic path to a united Ireland exists. “There is no support for or appetite for armed actions within the republican community,” he said.
“The INLA has recognised this by engaging with the IICD in this action. Other small militarist factions, both republican and loyalist, who are opposed to the peace process need now also to reflect on their position given the political realities of 2010 and end their futile armed actions.”
Some grassroots IRSP members described the move as “practical” and “mature” while others condemned it a symbolic “surrender” to British rule.
Republican Sinn Fein, which is regarded as the political wing of the Continuity IRA, described the INLA’s move as “shameful”.
“These weapons should have been given to those prepared to use them rather than destroyed to gain favour with the enemy,” a spokesman said. “British guns remain on our streets with the blessing of former republicans. Will those close to the now defunct INLA insist that British Crown Forces are to be supported rather than opposed?”
The loyalist Ulster Political Research Group, linked to the unionist paramilitary UDA, welcomed the INLA announcement.
“We are sure we can speak for the widest spectrum of opinion in the loyalist community when we congratulate those who have shown great leadership within the socialist community and who have had the vision and taken great risks to create a new environment for the future where violence is no longer a viable option and where weapons are a thing of the past,” it said.
The announcement was followed by a statement Belfast from individuals claiming to represent the Official IRA. The Official IRA split from the Provisional IRA in 1970 but is widely considered to have ceased to exist. Its statement today, as well as other recent reports of its existence, have been greeted with surprise and linked to government attempts to ensure a climate of disarmament.
The statement read: “The Official IRA have confirmed that, in keeping with the long held position within the Official Republican tradition of promoting and pursuing the development of peaceful, democratic and inclusive politics on the Island of Ireland, a process of engagement was unilaterally entered into with the decommissioning body and has reached a successful conclusion.”
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown praised the work of the international decommissioning body and claimed the breakaway faction of the UDA in South East Antrim had also decommissioned.
Brown told the House of Commons that decommissioning was “a central part of the process of moving Northern Ireland from violence to peace”.
“I think the house would want to record our thanks to the international commission which has now overseen decommissioning by the UDA, UVF, PIRA and now INLA and the Official IRA.”