London (CNSNews.com) - The British government Monday began the process of restoring self-rule to Northern Ireland, following the Irish Republican Army's weekend offer to put its weapons beyond use.
Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Mandelson, told the House of Commons the government planned to restore the suspended provincial power-sharing institutions by May 22.
Britain suspended the Catholic-Protestant executive in February over the republicans' refusal to relinquish or destroy the guns and explosives used during the violent campaign against British rule.
Mandelson appealed to the leader of the pro-British Ulster Unionist Party, David Trimble, to seize the opportunity presented by the new IRA statement.
"For the first time there is a commitment to put weapons completely and verifiably beyond use," Mandelson told lawmakers.
"There is a more clear cut assurance of IRA's peaceful intentions than we have ever heard before."
He called for a similar commitment from the main "loyalist" (pro-British) paramilitary groups.
In its statement, the IRA said within weeks, it would make a "confidence-building measure to confirm that its weapons remain secure."
It stopped short of promising to destroy weapons, as many unionists demand, but said its weapons caches could be inspected by third-party observers who would report to an international commission.
Mandelson said two observers - former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari and Cyril Ramaphosa, a business leader and former leading trade unionist in South Africa - would visit Belfast shortly.
President Clinton over the weekend hailed the IRA offer as a breakthrough and praised the IRA for "reaching out" to unionists.
"This is a very good day. The unionists still have to finally accept it but this idea of stowing the weapons and having the storage sites monitored, I think, is a way for both of them to achieve their previously stated aims."
More wary was the opposition Conservative Party's spokesman on Northern Ireland, Andrew Mackay, who called the development "significant," but noted that his party had reservations, "not least because we have all had our fingers burnt in the past."
Trimble, who cautiously welcomed the IRA stance, will now have to sell the new agreement to his party's ruling council, having recently survived a leadership challenge over his handling of the peace process.
The UUP council will likely debate and vote on the move May 20, just two days before the scheduled reinstitution of the power-sharing coalition in Belfast.
An early indication of the battle Trimble may face came from UUP lawmaker, Jeffrey Donaldson, who said the IRA statement did not go far enough to warrant a change in party policy.
"We should not go back into [power-sharing] government when not one single bullet has been handed in," he said.
Another dissenting UUP member, William Thompson, said Trimble would "be a fool to buy" the IRA offer.
"David Trimble claimed he must have certainty that actual [arms] decommission would happen before he went back into government. There is no certainty here."
The British and Irish governments have now set June 2001 as a new deadline for full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, brokered in 1998 with the crucial involvement of former U.S. Senator George Mitchell.