DUBLIN – The Irish National Liberation Army, an IRA splinter group responsible for some of the most notorious killings of the Northern Ireland conflict, renounced violence Sunday and signaled it could hand over weapons soon to disarmament officials.
Eleven years after calling a leaky cease-fire, the outlawed INLA said it would observe "exclusively peaceful means" and cooperate with Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, leader of an international commission that oversees the disarmament of underground armies operating in both parts of Ireland. However, the INLA did not explicitly promise to disarm fully nor specify when the secretive process would start.
The INLA-linked Irish Republican Socialist Party made the announcement at its annual parade near Dublin in honor of their movement's founder, Seamus Costello. He was shot to death by an Irish Republican Army member in the capital in October 1977.
The move was widely seen as another shot in the arm for Northern Ireland's largely successful peace process, which already has delivered IRA disarmament and a Catholic-Protestant government in Northern Ireland. INLA officials said the announcement was not timed to coincide with Sunday's visit to Dublin and Belfast by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
British and Irish security officials downplayed the value of words from the INLA, a feud-prone alliance of small gangs that long have turned on each other for control of criminal rackets, including sales of counterfeit goods and smuggled cigarettes.
The IRA-linked Sinn Fein party likewise expressed skepticism that the INLA statement really meant an ironclad commitment to nonviolence.
"However, if it is followed by the actions that are necessary, this is a welcome development," said Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, a former IRA commander who spurred that group to end its 1970-1997 campaign of violence after 1,775 killings.
The INLA killed more than 110 people from its 1974 foundation to its 1998 truce. In the decade since, its members have killed or wounded more than two dozen people, mostly criminal rivals.
Analysts point to two selfish motivations behind the INLA's peace declaration now.
Time is running out for INLA members to hand over guns and explosives without facing arrest and prison time. Britain and Ireland plan soon to end their 12-year-old amnesty from criminal prosecution for militants who surrender weapons to de Chastelain.
Also, several INLA members imprisoned for robberies, shootings and other crimes could benefit from accelerated paroles in reward for disarmament acts. Britain and Ireland freed more than 500 imprisoned militants from 1998 to 2000 in reward for their groups' truces, but INLA members convicted of crimes committed since 1998 have not received that benefit.
Lastly, the declaration to end the INLA as a viable armed force reflects the reality that, particularly in Dublin, non-political criminals increasingly take the group's brand name in vain when threatening people in robberies and extortion attempts.
"There's been all sorts of (expletive) running about Dublin claiming to be INLA. We killed a few, but we realistically can't kill 'em all," a senior figure in the group told The Associated Press on Sunday on condition of anonymity. The figure would not agree to publication of his name because police could use it as grounds to charge him with membership, a crime.
The Irish National Liberation Army was born amid bloody internal feuding within IRA circles in the mid-1970s. INLA leaders proclaimed devotion to Marxism and hostility to the burgeoning political realism of some IRA leaders.
The INLA sought to overtake the IRA as the major anti-British paramilitary group and, for several years, its high-profile and mass killings did upstage the much larger IRA.
The INLA played a little-recognized role in the threshold event of Northern Ireland's conflict: the 1981 hunger strike in the Maze prison near Belfast. Of the 10 inmates who starved to death in a bid for "political prisoner" status, seven were IRA and three INLA.
The INLA gained international attention in 1979 when it assassinated a British lawmaker within the grounds of Parliament in London. Its booby-trap bomb killed Airey Neave, the Northern Ireland adviser to Margaret Thatcher, as he drove his car out of the parking lot.
The group, under the command of former IRA hit man Dominic "Mad Dog" McGlinchey, bombed a Northern Ireland disco frequented by British troops in 1982. Eleven soldiers and six civilians were killed and 30 other people wounded when the building collapsed.
The following year the INLA machine-gunned a rural Protestant gospel hall during Sunday service, killing three worshippers and wounding seven, including the organist.
But the INLA devoted much of its time to waging fratricidal feuds. Colleagues ousted and killed a succession of commanders, including McGlinchey in 1994, who was shot 14 times point-blank in front of his teenage son.
The last major INLA killing was the 1997 assassination inside the Maze prison of Billy "King Rat" Wright, an iconic figure among Protestant militants. Wright's murder — by INLA prisoners using two smuggled handguns — spurred his followers to slay eight Catholic civilians in retaliation.
After the British and Irish governments and rival Catholic and Protestant parties achieved Northern Ireland's Good Friday peace accord of 1998, the INLA announced it would observe an open-ended truce — not because it supported the landmark pact, but because it recognized the dying public support for "armed struggle."