International weapons inspectors were to announce yesterday that they have supervised the full disarmament of the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA), a long-sought goal of Northern Ireland's peace process, an aide to the process' monitor said.
The IRA permitted two independent witnesses, including a Methodist minister and a Roman Catholic priest close to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, to view the secret disarmament work conducted by officials from Canada, Finland and the US, the aide to retired Canadian General John de Chastelain said on Sunday on condition of anonymity.
The office of Chastelain, who in recent weeks has been in secret locations overseeing the weapons destruction, scheduled a news conference for yesterday in Belfast.
The aide told reporters that the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning news conference would detail the scrapping of many tonnes of IRA weaponry this month at a confidential location in the Republic of Ireland. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Both witnesses -- the Reverend Harold Good, a former president of the Methodist Church in Ireland, and the Reverend Alex Reid, a Catholic priest -- also will state what they saw.
Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness said he believed the breakthrough would "bring the final chapter on the issue of IRA arms."
McGuinness plans to travel today to Washington to seek US political support for the IRA's actions.
"I believe that Ireland stands on the cusp of a truly historic advance, and I hope that people across the island will respond positively in the time ahead," he said.
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 December 1994.
On Saturday, Adams told thousands of supporters in Dublin that IRA disarmament would have "a huge impact" on peace efforts.
Adams, a veteran IRA commander, also said Sinn Fein stood ready to make major electoral and diplomatic gains once the IRA disarmed.
Unfortunately, most politicians and analysts agreed, the IRA move is coming years too late to kickstart the revival of 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 Reverend Ian Paisley, whose uncompromising Democratic Unionist Party represents most Protestants today, has dismissed the coming IRA moves as inadequate. Paisley insists on photographs, a detailed record and a Paisley-approved Protestant clergyman to serve as an independent witness.
A senior Democratic Unionist, Jeffrey Donaldson, said the IRA's apparent refusal to provide any photos and its refusal to use a Protestant minister nominated by his party as a witness meant that many Protestants would not fully believe the IRA moves.
"I don't think we're going to get that level of transparency tomorrow, and I think that's most unfortunate," Donaldson said. "People want to see what has happened ... The witnesses have been appointed by the IRA," he said. "It does diminish the credibility of whatever is going to happen tomorrow."