BELFAST, Northern Ireland – The Irish Republican Army (search) 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 (search), 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 (search) leader Gerry Adams (search) — 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.
Questioned by reporters, de Chastelain said he could not be absolutely certain that every IRA weapon had been disposed of, but he said he believed the IRA was sincere in saying it had handed over the whole arsenal. He also said the amount was consistent with police and army estimates of the IRA's holdings.
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, in 1994.
"It has been a very significant journey, a roller coaster at times," said senior Sinn Fein official Mitchel McLaughlin (search). He said he hoped IRA disarmament would prove "a defining and, hopefully, a liberating moment for the process" that would promote "confidence and generosity in response from our opponents."
Most politicians and analysts agreed, however, that the IRA move comes years too late to quickly revive a Roman 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 (search) represents most Protestants today, dismissed the IRA moves in advance as inadequate.
The Democratic Unionists had demanded photographs, a detailed record and a Paisley-approved Protestant clergyman to serve as an independent witness. The IRA refused to permit photos and selected the two religious witnesses themselves: the Rev. Harold Good (search), a former president of the Methodist Church in Ireland, and the Rev. Alex Reid (search), a Catholic priest.
"A witness who was appointed by the IRA is not going to have the same credibility," said the Democratic Unionist chairman, Nigel Dodds (search), who insisted that the witnesses would primarily have been of use to verify the authenticity of photographs.
"We have seen stunts, hype and spin time out of number ... so it's going to be a lot harder, more difficult, more challenging to get people to accept this as genuine," Dodds said.
The IRA said in July that it would no longer seek to abolish the predominantly Protestant territory of Northern Ireland by force, a 35-year policy that claimed nearly 1,800 lives from 1970 to the IRA cease-fire of 1997.
The IRA said it had commanded members to "dump arms," but it was vague about whether this meant every single 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 1993, billing it as the best practical way for the IRA to demonstrate it had renounced violence.
The British were particularly focused on weapons because Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi (search) shipped the IRA more than 130 tons of arms in the mid-1980s. The IRA could not quit, the reasoning went, when it was much better armed than ever before.
The IRA's stockpile, particularly tons of plastic explosives, gave it the ability to bomb London for decades if desired. Only if the IRA gave up the weapons, Britain insisted, would Sinn Fein gain a place in negotiations on Northern Ireland's future.
The IRA did not budge and abandoned a 1994 cease-fire with a 2-ton truck bomb in London's financial district in February 1996. When Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) assumed 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.