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Verify IRA Pledge to Disarm

With the precision of a military command, the Irish Republican Army has ordered a halt to its armed campaign against British rule in the province of Northern Ireland.

The IRA can get as official as it wants. But until its units actually "dump arms" (all arms), as it has told them to do, and until it ceases to be a criminal and paramilitary body, the IRA's statement Thursday shouldn't be taken at face value.

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Just remember what's happened since the 1998 Good Friday peace accord. That agreement largely ended 30 years of Catholic-Protestant violence in Northern Ireland and established a power-sharing government there. (Sadly, that government collapsed in 2002.) But the IRA hasn't fulfilled the accord's requirement that it disarm and cease criminal activity.

That's why its latest statement, though hopeful in its promise, needs the same response that Ronald Reagan gave the Soviets when working on arms control: Trust but verify.

Last year, negotiations to restore the government in Belfast failed over disarmament verification. Protestant politicians wanted documented proof, including photographs. The IRA refused. It now says it will verify through an independent body, but success depends on the details.

It's encouraging to hear the IRA say it will pursue its aims through political means only. But why even continue as an organization? It already has a political wing, Sinn Fein.

Change isn't easy for people who have devoted their entire lives to armed resistance. In that context, Thursday's statement can be viewed as a positive step in a slow evolution. But ultimately, the IRA must disband, and there must be proof that it has done so.