September 3, 2008 5:43 pm

IRA ‘no longer security threat’

The Irish Republican Army, which for almost 30 years fought a low-level insurgency against the British in Northern Ireland, is no longer a threat to security and its leadership structures have been allowed to “wither away”, according to an expert panel set up by the UK and Irish governments.

In a special report commissioned by the two governments, the Independent Monitoring Committee (IMC) said it was convinced the IRA was committed to an exclusively political path, and had abandoned its terrorist structures.

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It said it its army council “by deliberate choice is no longer operational or functional”. The seven-member body which masterminded the IRA terror campaign had been allowed to “fall into disuse”.

Shaun Woodward, Northern Ireland secretary, welcomed the findings of the report which he said marked a “groundbreaking” development in the political process.

Questions about the IRA’s continued existence have dogged the work of the province’s cross-party executive, which has not met for more than three months in a dispute over the transfer of policing and justice powers to local politicians.

Ministers hope the report will ease those tensions, ahead of a meeting of the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin, political wing of the IRA, on Thursday. The full executive is set to meet on September 18.

In an oblique reference to the ongoing dispute, Mr Woodward said it was “now time to complete the work of devolution”.

Ministers believe if the police are locally accountable it will do much to undercut the support enjoyed by dissident republicans, who in recent weeks have increased their attacks on the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

But Peter Robinson, DUP leader first minister in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing assembly, said “an essential part of building confidence in the community is that the army council has moved from a body that is not meeting to one that will never meet again”.

He added: “While it is marked progress that the IRA is no longer doing business, the unionist community needs to be convinced by the republican leadership that the IRA is out of business for good.”

The DUP says it will not support any moves to devolve policing and justice to Northern Ireland ministers until those conditions are met.

The IMC was at pains to point out its “military” departments had been disbanded although the organisation was still intact.

It was not able to say what had happened to IRA funds raised through previous illegal activity, but said there was no evidence that they were being used for paramilitary activities.

It said any intelligence gathering was “mainly for the purpose of ascertaining the nature of any threat from dissident republicans”.

Police and security officials voice growing concern that dissident groups may use the political vacuum to mount further attacks on the PSNI.

There have been significant incidents over the summer. In August shots were fired at the police in Craigavon, while in Fermanagh an improvised rocket propelled grenade was fired at three officers on patrol. Forensic evidence suggested the explosive used in this device had once been part of a consignment controlled by the IRA.

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