BELFAST, Northern Ireland – The Irish Republican Army said Thursday it will consider an appeal by Sinn Fein party chief Gerry Adams to renounce violence, a long-elusive goal in Northern Ireland peacemaking.
In a brief statement, the outlawed IRA said it received advance notice of Wednesday's call from Adams, an alleged IRA commander, and "will give his appeal due consideration and will respond in due course."
The IRA, which killed about 1,800 people as part of a failed campaign to abolish Northern Ireland as a British territory, has been observing a cease-fire since 1997. But the underground organization remains active on several fronts, particularly in running illegal rackets and promoting Catholic opposition to the province's police.
The IRA's activities and refusal to disarm repeatedly undermined the central objective of Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord: a joint Catholic-Protestant administration that included Sinn Fein (search).
A four-party coalition collapsed in 2002, and efforts to revive the arrangement failed last December when the IRA refused to permit photos of its disarmament or to renounce crime.
Since then, the governments of Britain, Ireland and the United States have united in demands for the IRA to disband. They cite the IRA's alleged mammoth robbery of a Belfast bank and killing of a Catholic man in Belfast as the most egregious recent examples of unacceptable activities.
The Rev. Ian Paisley, the key Protestant leader whose Democratic Unionist Party (search) must agree to any new power-sharing deal, dismissed the latest words from Adams and the IRA as "a fine art of hypocrisy."
Paisley said the IRA had already offered, as part of the recently failed negotiations, to disarm fully by Dec. 25, 2004, and to cease all violent activities, but had reneged on the offer.
"And now evidently they're going to consider the matter again," said Paisley, who called Adams a liar. "I've heard similar words from him for a very long time and I've heard great promises and the dates [for disarmament] have come and gone."
The British government said the IRA's refusal to fade away was preventing any revival of power-sharing between Sinn Fein and Paisley's party, which represents most Protestants.
"Everyone recognizes that the major obstacle in moving forward the peace process in Northern Ireland has been the reluctance of the Irish Republican Army to stand down from military preparations, although they have maintained a cease-fire against British military forces and the police," said Health Secretary John Reid (search), a former British governor in Northern Ireland who officially pulled the plug on power-sharing in 2002.
In Wednesday's statement, Adams said he had defended the IRA's right to wage "armed struggle" from 1970 to 1997. But he said those days were gone and IRA members should immediately discuss what the group's future purpose should be.
Adams said traditional IRA goals — chiefly the quest to unite the predominantly Protestant north of Ireland with the predominantly Catholic south, which won independence from Britain in 1922 — could be pursued peacefully through a growing Sinn Fein.
"Can you take courageous initiatives which will achieve your aims by purely political and democratic activity?" Adams said in comments directed at IRA members.
Adams issued his declaration on the first full day of campaigning for Northern Ireland's 18 seats in British Parliament. The May 5 election is expected to confirm Sinn Fein's emergence as the major Catholic-backed party.
Sinn Fein already holds four seats and is gunning for three more, while the long-dominant Social Democratic and Labour Party (search), which represents moderate Catholics opposed to the IRA, faces a battle to retain its two seats.