DUBLIN, Ireland — The imminent disarmament of the Irish Republican Army will have "a huge impact" on Northern Ireland's peace process, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams told thousands of supporters gathered in the capital.
Adams told the crowd, which marched through the center of the capital to rally, that he expected the IRA to scrap its stockpiled weapons in cooperation with international disarmament officials "in the near future."
Adams, a veteran IRA commander who has spent the past two decades guiding his legal party into Ireland's political mainstream, said Sinn Fein stood ready to make major electoral and diplomatic gains once the IRA disarmed.
He noted that Northern Ireland's Protestant majority had repeatedly refused to share power with Sinn Fein — a major goal of the 1998 peace accord for the British territory — because of the IRA's past determination to keep its truce open-ended and its arsenal hidden for potential future use.
"When the IRA delivers, when our opponents and our enemies no longer have the IRA to use as an excuse, what are they going to do?" Adams asked.
The IRA has observed a cease-fire since 1997 after killing nearly 1,800 people in a 27-year campaign to overthrow Northern Ireland by force. But it refused to disarm fully by mid-2000, the goal specified in the 1998 accord. That policy undermined Protestant support for power-sharing, and a four-party administration for Northern Ireland that included Sinn Fein collapsed in 2002.
In July, following years of diplomatic pressure from the British, Irish and U.S. governments, the IRA announced its armed campaign against British rule of Northern Ireland was formally over and it would soon resume disarmament in cooperation with a retired Canadian general, John de Chastelain.
The British and Irish governments both expect de Chastelain to confirm the IRA's full disarmament soon. The Canadian returned to Ireland this month, but his office has kept his movements secret.
De Chastelain previously oversaw three acts of partial IRA disarmament from 2001 to 2003, although police say the IRA has retained most of its Libyan-supplied arsenal in underground bunkers.
"I believe that the IRA in the near future is going to honor its commitment to put its weapons beyond use. Such an announcement will have a huge impact on the political process," Adams said. He acknowledged that the decision to disarm "will be difficult" for some supporters of the Sinn Fein-IRA movement to accept.
Sinn Fein's long-term goal is to become a member of governments in both parts of Ireland and to use that position to promote the gradual unification of the north with the Republic of Ireland.
The 1998 accord emphasized that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom as long as most of its 1.7 million residents were in support — as opinion polls have demonstrated they are.
Before the IRA cease-fire, Sinn Fein was politically isolated and its support in Northern Ireland capped at about 12 percent. Sinn Fein is now the biggest Catholic-backed party there.
In the Republic of Ireland, where a decade ago Sinn Fein had virtually no popular base, Adams is building the party into a sufficiently strong bloc to make it a credible coalition partner for Prime Minister Bertie Ahern's long-dominant Fianna Fail party.