Panel: IRA Leaders Working to End Violence

Commanders of the Irish Republican Army are working hard to end the group's involvement in violence and crime, but some members are defying their leaders and have retained firearms, a panel of experts reported Wednesday.

Britain and Ireland welcomed the broadly positive picture of IRA inactivity presented by the Independent Monitoring Commission. Both governments formed the four-member panel in 2002 to assess the underground activities of the IRA and Northern Ireland's several other illegal groups.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he hoped the experts' conclusions would promote "sufficient confidence and trust" in Northern Ireland for the province's legislature to elect a new power-sharing administration involving Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party that represents most Catholics in the British territory.

The Northern Ireland legislature has been mothballed since October 2002, when the last power-sharing coalition collapsed over an IRA spying scandal, but is scheduled to reconvene May 15. Power-sharing between Northern Ireland's British Protestant majority and Irish Catholic minority was the central goal of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday accord of 1998.

Irish Justice Minister Michael McDowell said the developments outlined in the report help to create "the proper environment in which the political parties can come together" on May 15 and "begin the process of self-government."

The commission, which includes a former chief of the CIA, said IRA members committed no shootings from December 2005 to February, the three-month period covered in Wednesday's report.

The commission said it couldn't yet reach firm conclusions on two crimes this month in the Irish Republic with possible IRA links: the assassination of a former Sinn Fein official, Denis Donaldson, who admitted he was a British spy; and the hijacking of a vodka shipment.

The commissioners' report said IRA commanders were actively discouraging members from participating in riots or criminal rackets, such as smuggling fuel and cigarettes, a decades-old IRA activity. It said the IRA also appears to have halted recruitment and spying activities, two previous major sources of concern.

But the commission's report said some members had held back an unknown amount of firearms when IRA commanders in September handed over a network of arms bunkers to disarmament officials, a long-elusive goal of the Good Friday pact.

It said the volume of weaponry still in the hands of IRA members "was not significant in comparison to what was decommissioned," and should not cast doubt on the peace commitments of IRA leaders.

"The surprising thing would be if there were no such lapses or disagreements, not that they occur," the report said, referring to evidence that some IRA members had retained weapons and criminal rackets in defiance of their leaders' change in policy.

Despite the commission's unusually positive findings about the IRA, Sinn Fein lambasted the panel as a pawn of British intelligence agents.

Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness, a veteran IRA commander who was education minister in the last failed power-sharing administration, said the report was "top-heavy with allegations, but completely devoid of any evidence to back them up."

Sinn Fein's moderate rival for Catholic votes, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, said it was concerned the IRA had banked millions from decades of crime that could be used for Sinn Fein's electoral benefit.

"Given that the IRA is dismantling as a military structure, what need is there for such criminal funds?" said SDLP leader Mark Durkan. "Is it to be used to give advantage to a political party?"