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Irish Peace Process - A Brief Note on Decommissioning

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Text: Martin Melaugh
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Irish Peace Process: A Brief Note on Decommissioning

by Martin Melaugh (2010)


Copyright Eamon MelaughDecommissioning in the context of the Irish Peace Process referred to the hand-over, or verified disposal, of weapons by paramilitary groups. The issue proved to be a stumbling block during the whole process of trying to find a solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Unionists consistently demanded that the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and other paramilitary groups, should decommission illegally held weapons. Unionists said it was an essential confidence building measure if they were to share government with Republicans.

Republicans stated that there would be no decommissioning before there was a political settlement to the conflict, and that the matter should be dealt with by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) that was established on 26 August 1997.


During the Northern Ireland conflict the British government stated publicly that it would not talk with the representatives of terrorist groups while such groups were engaged in a violent conflict. On a number of occasions the British government did however hold secret talks with the IRA.

When the IRA called its first ceasefire on 31 August 1994 there was an expectation amongst Republicans that Sinn Féin (SF) would enter substantive negotiations. However, on 7 March 1995 Patrick Mayhew, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, laid down extra conditions, that became know as the 'Washington 3' conditions, before SF could enter talks. In essence these conditions mean prior decommissioning of IRA weapons before talks.

This led to a period of deadlock and George Mitchell, then a Senator in the United States of America (USA), was asked to report on the issue of arms decommissioning. The main recommendation of his report on 24 January 1996 was that: "The parties should consider an approach under which some decommissioning would take place during the process of all-party negotiations".

The British government appeared to reject the recommendations and opted for an election to a Northern Ireland Forum. The IRA ended its ceasefire with a bomb in London on 9 February 1996. Further deadlock occurred and was not broken until a Labour government was returned following the general election on 1 May 1997.

On 20 July 1997 the IRA renewed its ceasefire. SF signed up to the Mitchell principles and entered the multi-party talks at Stormont on 9 September 1997. The parties to the talks eventually signed the 'Good Friday Agreement' on 10 April 1998 that contained a section on Decommissioning. This committed parties to:

"... continue to work constructively and in good faith with the Independent Commission, and to use any influence they may have, to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years following endorsement in referendums North and South of the agreement and in the context of the implementation of the overall settlement."
The Agreement was endorsed by people in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in referenda on 22 May 1998. Elections to a new Northern Ireland Assembly were held on 25 June 1998. The Secretary of State published a 'Decommissioning Scheme' [PDF; 75KB] on 29 June 1998 which made provision for the decommissioning of weapons by paramilitary groups. The issue of decommissioning continued to impede progress to the devolution of powers from Westminster to Stormont, and the deadline on 31 October 1998 for the formation of the Executive was missed. Further attempts to implement the Good Friday Agreement during 1998 and much of 1999 also failed.

However, powers were devolved to Stormont on 2 December 1999 and the various institutions outlined in the Agreement were established. In agreeing to enter the Executive the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) said it would review progress on decommissioning in February 2000 and if the IRA had not begun the process then David Trimble, then leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), would resign as First Minister.

There was a series of reviews of the working of the Good Friday Agreement and several suspensions of the institutions of devolved government. Trimble eventually resigned as First Minister on 1 July 2001. The UUP then announced the resignation of its remaining ministers on the Executive on 18 October 2001.

Acts of Decommissioning

On the 23 October 2001 the IRA announced that it had begun to decommission its weapons. This was then repeated on two further occasions on 8 April 2002 and 21 October 2003. On Thursday 28 July 2005 the leadership of the IRA issued a statement which formally ordered an end to its armed campaign and instructed all IRA units to "dump arms". On Monday 26 September 2005 it was announced by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) that the IRA had completed the decommissioning of all of its arms.

On Sunday 11 November 2007 the UDA issued a statement in which it was announced that: "all active service units of the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) will as from 12pm tonight stand down will all military intelligence destroyed and as a consequence of this all weaponry will be put beyond use". (See full statement.)

On 18 June 2009 the BBC broke the news that the UVF (and RHC) had engaged with the IICD to decommission weapons. However the official statement from the UVF on the matter was not released until 27 June 2009. In the statement the UVF said it had, "completed the process of rendering ordnance totally, and irreversibly, beyond use". At the time of this UVF announcement the media reported that the UDA had begun to decommission some of its weapons.

On Wednesday 6 January 2010 the Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG) held a news conference in Belfast at which it was announced that the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) had decommissioned its weapons. It was reported in the media that the act of decommissioning had taken place on Tuesday 5 January 2010 at the British Army base at Ballykinler, County Down.

On Monday 8 February 2010 the IICD announced that there had been three further acts of decommissioning by the Official IRA, the INLA, and the South East Antrim UDA. The IICD issued statements relating to the decommissioning by the OIRA and the INLA but not the South East Antrim UDA. The Official Irish Republican Army (OIRA) issued a statement to confirm that decommissioning had taken place. The Official IRA statement came as something of a surprise to some politicians and commentators as the organisation had been on ceasefire since 1972. The Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) also released a statement on the issue of weapons held by the INLA.

The official remit of the IICD came to an end at on 8 February 2010.

Source Material

Information on the issue of decommissioning is to be found throughout the section on the Peace Process. See in particular the text of the Agreement, the chronologies, and the various documents and statements associated with the peace process. [Links at the top of this page.]

See also:
The list of reports and statements by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD).


CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
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