The beleaguered Northern Ireland peace process was bolstered today when the Irish Republican Army proposed a process for putting down its weapons.
The proposal came just hours ahead of a deadline for Catholic and Protestant political leaders to respond to a last ditch effort to save the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
In a brief statement to the press today, retired Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, who heads the International Commission on Decommissioning, said he believed the proposal had the potential to resolve the sensitive issue of decommissioning that has threatened to stall the Northern Ireland peace process in the past.
"Based on our discussions with the IRA representative, we believe that this proposal initiates a process that will put IRA arms completely and verifiably beyond use," he said.
However Chastelain declined to provide details of the proposal.
Today's announcement was welcomed by the British and Irish governments.
In a statement to the press, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern described the latest development as "an historic breakthrough."
Gerry Adams, president of the IRA's political ally, Sinn Fein, immediately declared the IRA's offer was a sign of its commitment towards the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. "Once again the IRA has demonstrated its commitment to the search for a lasting peace," he said. "The other parties need to match that commitment and should respond positively and constructively."
But a member of the major Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, expressed skepticism over the proposal, declaring it did not go far enough.
"We will want to know that any proposals on decommissioning fully comply with the legislation in that the weapons must be rendered permanently unusable and unavailable," Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) MP Jeffrey Donaldson told the reporters today.
Unionist members also stressed the real issue was whether the IRA would actually carry through with its proposals. "The significance is not so much in what is said here, but whether or not the IRA will now follow through and decommission their illegal weapons," Donaldson said.
Long Awaited Goal
The IRA's latest proposal and Chastelain's favorable assessment is widely expected to add pressure on the unionists to agree on a peace deal.
Pressure on the crumbling peace process increased last month when David Trimble, leader of the UUP, resigned as Northern Ireland First Minister over the lack of progress on the IRA decommissioning.
The resignation forced the British and Irish governments to work on a new peace blueprint.
The IRA disarmament has been a long-unfulfilled goal of the Good Friday Agreement, which got the Ulster Unionists to form a government alongside Sinn Fein in late 1999. The agreement set the deadline for disarmament at mid-2000, a deadline that was later extended to June 2001.
However a new deadline looks set to haunt the already embattled Northern Ireland peace process. The deadline to fill Trimble's post has been set at Aug. 12. Failure to fill the post will result in the dissolution of the current UUP-Sinn Fein power-sharing administration.
ABCNEWS' Linda Albin in London contributed to this report.