London (CNSNews.com) - The stalled peace process in Northern Ireland got a boost Tuesday as the British government called new elections in the province and the Irish Republican Army decommissioned some of its weapons, officials said.
Voters will go to the polls on Nov. 26 to choose new representatives for the provincial legislature, which has been suspended since last year due to a row over alleged IRA spying.
On Tuesday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, traveled to Belfast to build support for the restart of the assembly.
In London, Blair's official spokesman said that Tuesday's moves could be the most significant developments in the peace process since the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which set up the assembly and provided for the eventual disbanding of terror groups.
Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party, called for armed republican groups not currently observing a cease-fire to put down their weapons.
"I appeal to them to join with the rest of us, republican and unionist, nationalist and loyalist, in taking a leap forward together and collectively building a new future based on justice and peace," he said.
Several breakaway IRA factions have continued terror attacks since the Good Friday agreement was signed.
"I welcome this morning's announcement of an assembly election," Adams said. "This was a point of principle and a core issue for Sinn Fein."
"I appeal to the electorate to use their vote and to use it wisely in support of a continuing process of change and a peaceful and just future for all our people," he said.
Adams said that Sinn Fein and the main pro-British party, the Ulster Unionists, have been in direct negotiations over the past several weeks.
"This direct and open dialogue between unionists and republicans is in itself a profoundly important development and the key to ongoing political progress," he said.
Unionists have been looking for assurances that the IRA will stop its spying activities and make further moves towards giving up all its weapons, while republicans want greater provincial assembly control over Northern Ireland's affairs and police and justice reforms.
The Ulster Unionists gave a guarded welcome to Tuesday's announcements and Adams' speech.
"I hope we will witness the end of what we have long sought -- the transition of Irish republicans from terror to democracy," said Michael McGimpsey, one of the party's representatives in the provincial legislature.
"Republicans must convince people that they are committed to peace and to the process and to democracy," he said.
Under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, the IRA is obligated to put its weapons, thought to include guns and plastic explosives, verifiably beyond use.
The IRA said Adams' speech "accurately reflects our position."
"We have also authorised a further act of putting arms beyond use," the paramilitary group said in a statement released to the press.
John de Chastelain, a retired Canadian general in charge of disarmament in the province, later confirmed that the largest batch of weapons yet decommissioned was put out of service.
In a statement, de Chastelain said the arms included "light, medium and heavy ordinance and associated munitions" and "automatic weapons, ammunition, explosives and explosive material."
Parts of the group's arsenal have been destroyed twice before at key stages in the peace agreement
Moves to end the impasse over the assembly were given a kick-start last week at talks in London between British, Irish and American officials and leaders of the main Northern Ireland political parties.
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