A call from Gerry Adams for the IRA to abandon its decades-long "armed struggle" has raised hopes that the organisation might soon put itself out of business.

Although much initial reaction was guarded and in some cases dismissive, the prospect that the group responsible for killing more than half of the 3,700 victims of the Troubles might close down caused excitement in London, Dublin and Belfast.

The Sinn Fein president's declaration yesterday that an alternative existed to armed struggle, through building political and international support for republican objectives, was directed specifically at the IRA. He said he had appealed to the IRA's ruling army council "to fully embrace and accept this alternative".

He asked the IRA to begin intense internal consultation in advance of taking "such truly historic decisions".

Describing the statement as significant and welcome, Downing Street said: "Obviously the key will be what the IRA does as a result, and it's on that that any final judgement must be made. But we hope this represents the way forward for republicanism because the only way forward is through exclusively peaceful and democratic means."

As the Downing Street statement indicates, the Adams statement means many of those involved in the peace process are suddenly full of hope that the IRA will agree to leave the stage.

Dublin said it would need to see action from the IRA.

"Gerry Adams' appeal to the IRA today is significant and has potential. However, ultimately this statement can only be judged on the basis of the IRA's actions on foot of it," Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said.

No celebrations of a breakthrough will begin until the generalised sentiments expressed by Mr Adams have been thoroughly pinned down and meticulously tested. This will entail specific statements and assurances from the IRA to satisfy the requirements, laid down by both London and Dublin, that all forms of IRA illegality will come to an end.

The closest verification process will be needed, partly because the IRA is generally judged to have lied when it denied responsibility for the £26m Northern Bank robbery in Belfast in December.

Mr Adams presented the new move as his own initiative to the IRA, but it is obvious that republicans hope to ease the pressure on them caused by the robbery and intensified by the killing in January of a Belfast man, Robert McCartney, following a bar brawl.

The timing of the announcement is also designed to help Sinn Fein's attempts to win Westminster seats from its ailing nationalist rival, the Social Democratic and Labour Party. The initiative has instantly placed republicans at the centre of the election campaign in Northern Ireland. The SDLP said the public would be sceptical of any promises from Sinn Fein in the run-up to polling day.

James Dingley, lecturer in terrorism and political violence at the University of Ulster, said Adams comments were nothing more than symbolic gestures timed to coincide with the start of campaigning for May's UK general election.

"The election campaign is a major factor here and they've got to make the right noises," he said. "I would put it down as an election ploy for public consumption and not much more."

Talks on reviving an assembly in which Catholics and Protestants ran the province's affairs broke down at the end of last year and are now at a standstill.

Dublin and London say IRA crime is scuppering progress.

Sinn Fein's main opponents, the protestant Democratic Unionist Party, refuse to sit in government with the Catholic party until the IRA publicly disarms.

The most hostile reaction came from the Rev Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, whom the governments hope can forge a post-election deal with Sinn Fein.

He declared: "The Unionist population have proved Gerry Adams in the past to be an absolute deceiver and aliar and this is just another political stunt promoting himself as a democrat."

The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, said the Adams statement had to be matched by action from the IRA.

"We must obviously await the response of the IRA to this appeal," he said.

"Nothing less than a complete and decisive end to all IRA activity and capability will be acceptable."

David Liddington, the shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, said people needed to see evidence of permanent change within the republican movement, declaring: "Trust can only be built on actions, not just words."

Lembit Opik, the Liberal Democrats' Northern Ireland spokesman, described the statement as tremendously important, adding that if the IRA responded positively it would be a landmark moment.