Decision Time in Ulster

British Prime Minister Tony Blair was down to two doors - with a tiger behind each.

If he let elections in Northern Ireland proceed as planned May 29, extremist republican and unionist parties would make big gains. Since the Rev. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party refuses to sit with Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political wing, that was a recipe for stalemate.

On the other hand, if he postponed elections a second time, he risked appearing undemocratic and splitting with his partner in peace, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.

Last week, Mr. Blair wisely chose the first course. The moderate Ulster Unionist Party of First Minister David Trimble was pleased. Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists were outraged. Their outrage is misplaced, for they are the ones responsible for the stalled implementation of the 1998 Good Friday agreement.

The intolerant Democratic Unionists oppose the peace process as a British sellout. They have done all in their power to obstruct it.

The IRA's leaders seem unable to take the final step to assure unionists the violence has ended for good - and its arms are not being kept in reserve in case things don't go the IRA's way.

Blair asked the IRA in April for assurances it would end all paramilitary activities, such as targeting, stockpiling weapons, "punishment" beatings, and shootings. He needs this to persuade unionists like Mr. Trimble to commit once and for all to making local government work.

Instead of a straight answer, the IRA responded with word games. Blair said that wasn't enough and put off the vote until October.

On the bright side, Blair and Mr. Ahern agreed to move ahead on other fronts. They promised a reduction in British troops, appointment of international monitors, security reforms, and an amnesty for IRA fugitives, if the IRA makes clear its complete commitment to peace.

Lasting peace is within reach, if only the Northern Irish people - both Protestant unionist and Catholic republican - will grasp it.

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