BELFAST -- International weapons inspectors have supervised the full disarmament of the outlawed Irish Republican Army, a long-sought goal of Northern Ireland's peace process, an aide to the process' monitor said yesterday.
The IRA permitted two outside witnesses -- 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 United States, according to an aide to retired Canadian General John de Chastelain, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The office of de Chastelain, who in recent weeks has been in secret locations overseeing the weapons destruction, scheduled a news conference for today.
The aide said the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning news conference would detail the scrapping of many tons 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 Rev. Harold Good, a former president of the Methodist Church in Ireland, and the Rev. Alex Reid, a Catholic priest -- also will state what they saw.
Statements from the British and Irish governments, Adams, and the IRA's command were expected soon.
''I am confident that [today] will bring the final chapter on the issue of IRA arms," said Martin McGuinness, the deputy leader of the IRA-linked Sinn Fein, who plans to travel tomorrow 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."
The breakthrough should smash the biggest stumbling block in Northern Ireland's peace process since Britain opened negotiations with Sinn Fein in December 1994.
Unfortunately, most politicians and analysts agree, the IRA move is coming years too late to kick-start 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 Rev. 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 Protestant clergyman approved by him to serve as an independent witness.
A senior Democratic Unionist, Jeffrey Donaldson, said the IRA's apparent refusal to provide 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."
The IRA said in July that its 35-year campaign to overthrow British rule of Northern Ireland by force, which claimed nearly 1,800 lives before its 1997 suspension, was officially over.
The IRA said it had commanded members to ''dump arms," but it was vague about whether this meant every single one. This left room to retain firearms for crime, intimidation, and self-protection.
Britain first demanded IRA arms decommissioning -- an intentionally vague term designed to give the IRA maximum flexibility to decide how weapons should be discarded -- in December 1993, billing it as the best practical way for the IRA to demonstrate it had renounced violence.
The British focus on weapons came after Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy shipped the IRA more than 130 tons of arms in the mid-1980s. The IRA could not quit, the reasoning went, when it was much better armed than ever before.
The IRA's stockpile, particularly tons of Semtex plastic explosive, gave it the ability to bomb London for decades if desired. Only if the IRA gave up the weapons, Britain insisted, would Sinn Fein gain a place in negotiations on Northern Ireland's future.
The IRA did not budge and abandoned a 1994 cease-fire with a 2-ton truck bomb in London's financial district in 1996. When Prime Minister Tony Blair took power in 1997, he allowed Sinn Fein into talks with a renewed cease-fire but no disarmament.
Ever since, it has proved to be an intractable battle to keep Protestant politicians on the road to compromise with Sinn Fein.
Arguments over whether the IRA has fully disarmed appeared certain.
De Chastelain had said he will use the Libyan authorities' lists of the weaponry it supplied as a baseline for estimating whether the IRA fully disarmed.
But nobody besides the IRA can say how much weaponry it has acquired from smugglers in the United States, the former Yugoslavia, and Eastern Europe over the past decade.
In 2000, the same year the IRA promised to disarm, the FBI busted an IRA weapons-smuggling unit after it shipped more than 100 handguns from Florida in packages disguised as children's toys and Christmas presents.
Some of the guns have been forensically linked to IRA killings of several paramilitary and criminal opponents, including drug dealers and an IRA dissident. Police also have seized IRA stashes of recently manufactured bullets.