'Sorry' as a Starting Point

It's time to wonder, just wonder: What if the war on Al Qaeda terrorists ended not with a bang, but with ... an apology?

Or what if Hamas and Islamic Jihad could see the moral bankruptcy of their tactics and admit the targeting of Israeli civilians is just plain wrong?

This week's public apology by the Irish Republican Army for its killing of civilians over the past 30 years impels such questions. Just how important can such an owning-up be to resolving a deep conflict?

The IRA statement is viewed by the Irish and British governments as a positive step, an unprecedented expression of regret from a group that has often been inclined to glorify violence. Skeptics view it as a tactic, designed to placate 10 Downing Street.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is under a deadline to respond to allegations by pro-British parties in Northern Ireland that the IRA has broken its cease-fire by taking part in recent street violence in Belfast.

The issue, again, is whether the Sinn Fein, the IRA's political arm, should be allowed to retain its seats in the province's new government, set up by the 1998 Good Friday peace plan.

That plan remains a bulwark of hope for Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein has been a central participant, and the IRA's apology included words of commitment to the peace process. Those words must be backed by further, consistent steps by the IRA to disarm and renounce future violence.

That said, the words offered by the IRA shouldn't be discounted. If they represent a true change of heart, they could be a turning point. Sorrow for past violence can alter mental dynamics, giving reconciliation and peace an opening. It could bring more dialogue between old enemies.

The IRA statement could indicate that men for whom violence had become an end as much as a means can find a way out of that dead end.

The same option is open to others so trapped.

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