BELFAST -- The Irish Republican Army yesterday declared an end to its 35-year armed campaign to end British rule in Northern Ireland, drawing both praise for abandoning violence in its struggle for a united Ireland and skepticism from those who questioned whether its members will keep their promises.
In an order effective at 11 a.m. EST yesterday, the IRA said its cadre of former assassins, bombers, and kneecappers must devote all their energies in trying to unite Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to the south through peaceful, political means.
''The war is over," said Bertie Ahern, Ireland's prime minister, after a former IRA prisoner read aloud the long-awaited declaration in Belfast in a videotaped message. ''The IRA's armed campaign is over, paramilitarism is over, and I believe that we can look to the future of peace and prosperity based on mutual trust and reconciliation and a final end to violence."
Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, who made resolving the ''Irish question" a chief priority of his government, called the IRA's statement ''a step of unparalleled magnitude in the recent history of Northern Ireland."
Blair, who is suddenly focusing on a new terror threat posed by Islamic militants, praised the IRA's statement for its clarity, saying it paved the way for the resumption of the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland that has been suspended for nearly three years.
Blair, Ahern, and the IRA's political allies in the Sinn Fein party called the statement a historic step toward resolving a conflict that claimed some 3,500 lives since the IRA launched its armed struggle against British rule in 1969.
But Protestant unionists, who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom and who pulled out of the powersharing government over the continuation of IRA activity, were far cooler to the IRA's declaration, which they said should have come as early as 2000 under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
At the very least, unionists said, it would take months, if not years, for them to see whether the IRA was sincere. Jeffrey Donaldson, a member of parliament for the Democratic Unionist Party, which represents most Protestants in Northern Ireland, said the IRA needed to be more explicit in ruling out criminal activity, such as December's $50 million bank robbery in Belfast the police attributed to the IRA. He said unionists are also wary of the IRA's pledge to get rid of its weapons, given the secrecy surrounding the process.
In its statement, the IRA said its ruling Army Council had ordered members to ''dump arms," and will allow two clergy members -- one Protestant, the other Catholic -- to witness the destruction of its arsenal. The IRA statement said members of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning of paramilitary arms would also be invited.
Skepticism was not confined to unionists. The sisters of Robert McCartney -- the 33-year-old Catholic whose slaying in January at the hands of IRA members who then tried to cover up the crime became a cause celebre that pressured the IRA to make yesterday's statement -- said the IRA failed to address the issue of criminal activity by its members.
But Sinn Fein officials insisted that the IRA addressed the issue by saying in the statement:
''All volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programs through exclusively peaceful means," the IRA said. ''Volunteers must not engage in any other activities whatsoever."
The IRA has long held that any actions taken by its members while engaged in what they call an ''armed struggle" should not be considered a crime. The reference to ''any other activities whatsoever" clearly prohibits criminal activity, Sinn Fein and government officials said.
Irish and British diplomats said they interpreted the ban as applying to training, recruiting, targeting, vigilante justice, and any other activity associated with a paramilitary organization.
Sir Reg Empey, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, also contended that the IRA did not disband outright. Some analysts contend that the IRA's constitution says the group cannot disband until its goal of a united Ireland is achieved.
Yesterday's statement marked the first time in some 200 years of armed resistance to British rule in Ireland that the leading republican paramilitary group had publicly vowed to pursue a united Ireland only through peaceful means. In 1962, a previous incarnation of the IRA ordered its members to ''dump arms" and disperse after a failed border campaign, but stopped short of renouncing violence.
The IRA's statement broke with tradition in that it did not come in the form of a communique signed by the mythical P. O'Neill, but instead was contained in a videotaped statement read by a former IRA prisoner named Seanna Walsh. Walsh, who served 21 years in prison, was a cellmate of Bobby Sands, who led the 1981 IRA hunger strike.
After three decades of hiding behind black ski masks known as balaclavas, the IRA released the videotape to signal its determination to put a human face on its future endeavors, senior republicans said.
The statement was made nearly four months after Sinn Fein's president, Gerry Adams, told the IRA a strictly political alternative to violence was available and urged IRA militants to abandon their armed campaign.
The declaration marked a personal triumph for Adams, who since the late 1980s has waged a slow but steady effort to wean the republican movement from its traditional embrace of physical force. In doing so, Adams, who denies police assertions that he was once an IRA commander, has put the political arm of the republican movement in the driver's seat after two centuries of open and often futile violent rebellion.
''Today's decision by the IRA to move into a new peaceful mode is historic and represents a courageous and confident initiative," said Adams, speaking during a news conference in a Dublin hotel. ''It is a truly momentous and defining point in the search for a lasting peace with justice."
If the IRA follows through on its promises, it is effectively ending one of Europe's most intractable conflicts, one in which the IRA killed nearly half of the 3,500 who have died in The Troubles since 1969 in a province roughly the size of Connecticut.
Protestant extremists in Northern Ireland, known as loyalists for their allegiance to the British crown, have killed almost a third of those who died. British soldiers or police killed the rest.
Protestant extremists have refused to hand over their weapons. They are currently engaged in a bloody internecine feud and still carry out random killings of Catholics occasionally.
Both the IRA and Adams paid tribute to their ''patriot dead," IRA members who were killed. They were conscious that many people had suffered during the conflict, they said, but did not apologize for killing civilians. Both the IRA, in its statement, and Adams said the decision to abandon the armed campaign did not cause any widespread dissension in the ranks and there is no fear of a split.
Jim McVeigh, a former IRA commander, said yesterday's statement was even more significant than the IRA's 1994 cease-fire, which has held except for an 18-month period when the IRA accused the British of not being serious about negotiating.
''They said the war is over," said McVeigh.
The IRA had refused to disarm in recent years, accusing unionists of reneging on promises to share power and the government of refusing to end what it calls unionist obstructionism.
But, especially since the 2001 terror attacks in the United States, outside forces have conspired to force the IRA to make concessions. Within weeks of the Sept. 11 attacks, the IRA began disposing of some of its weapons. After the December bank robbery and the slaying of McCartney a month later, the British and Irish governments said they would no longer tolerate the IRA's continued use of violence. In March, Adams got a cool reception in Washington, D.C., during St. Patrick's Day celebrations, and the recent terrorist attacks in London further limited the IRA's ability to stave off the end of its armed campaign.
The reaction in Washington was positive, though more measured at the White House than in Dublin and London. The White House said the statement had the potential to be historic, but congressional friends of Sinn Fein, including Richard E. Neal, Democrat of Springfield, were ecstatic. Neal called it the end of ''the longest-running political dispute in the history of the Western World."
Susan Milligan contributed to this report from Washington.