BELFAST, Northern Ireland – The Irish Republican Army (search) declared for the first time Thursday that it's willing to get rid of its entire weapons stockpile within weeks - but it won't allow anybody to photograph the disarmament.
The outlawed IRA made its new offer of speedy disarmament a day after the British and Irish governments published a detailed plan designed to revive a Catholic-Protestant administration, the intended cornerstone of the province's Good Friday (search) peace accord of 1998.
The two diametrically opposed forces that would have to share power - the British Protestants of the Democratic Unionist Party and the Irish Catholics of Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party - agree they are close to a historic pact.
But just as the IRA's longtime refusal to disarm has wrecked previous power-sharing pacts, its refusal to permit photos of its disarmament has become the deal-breaker this time.
All sides agreed Thursday that the IRA's latest commitments represent a stunning advance from 1997, when the underground organization halted its 27-year campaign against British rule, which left 1,800 dead and tens of thousands injured.
At that time, IRA activists plastered walls with the defiant slogan "Not a bullet, not an ounce." This meant the IRA would cling to its massive arsenal - largely supplied by Libya in the mid-1980s and hidden in underground bunkers - as its most valuable negotiating card.
In Thursday's statement, the IRA confirmed British and Irish claims that it was ready to play its ace - but also that its new slogan has effectively become: Not a photo.
The IRA's seven-man command said it has conditionally agreed to lead disarmament officials to all of its remaining weapons bunkers "speedily and, if possible, by the end of December."
It will allow two clergymen - one a Catholic priest approved by Sinn Fein, the other a Protestant nominated by the Democratic Unionists - to act as independent observers, another new commitment.
In other significant pledges, the IRA moved closer to demands for the group to fade away as part of a new power-sharing deal.
It said it would instruct its membership - estimated at less than 1,000 people organized in small units - "not to engage in any activity which might thereby endanger that new agreement."
But the IRA said it must reject one section in the Anglo-Irish plans published Wednesday:
- That the IRA should permit an internationally respected photographer to record the entire disarmament process;
- For these photos to be shown to leading Protestant politicians confidentially once Northern Ireland's legislature convened in January;
- And for the photos to be published in March on the same day that lawmakers elected a new administration led jointly by the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein.
The IRA said Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley "demanded that our contribution be photographed, and reduced to an act of humiliation. This was never possible."
Sinn Fein chairman Mitchel McLaughlin said Protestants instead must accept as sufficient the IRA's offer of independent witnesses.
"The photographs have been ruled out and we should just accept that as (being) a bridge too far," McLaughlin said.
But the Democratic Unionists declared its readiness for a protracted standoff if the IRA doesn't budge on permitting photos.
"If there is going to be an impasse over decommissioning, then it could go on for a long time," said Democratic Unionist negotiator Jeffrey Donaldson. "Republicans are going to have to revise their position."
The British and Irish governments agreed that IRA disarmament must be sufficiently "transparent" for the public, particularly the Protestant majority, to support power-sharing with Sinn Fein.
Britain's governor for Northern Ireland, Paul Murphy, said he understood Sinn Fein-IRA worries that Paisley could use photos to rub the movement's nose in surrender claims.
"At the same time," Murphy said, "unless we are able to give confidence to people throughout the whole of Northern Ireland that decommissioning has happened, then this simply isn't going to work."