N. Ireland's Lump of Coal

Former US Sen. George Mitchell, who negotiated the 1998 Good Friday accord between Northern Ireland's warring Catholics and Protestants, maintained that the hardest part about the peace pact would be implementing it.

He was right. In the intervening years, a power-sharing government (as called for in the accord) came into existence. But it collapsed in 2002, and rule has reverted to London.

And while peace has generally been maintained, the paramilitary Irish Republican Army (IRA), which was to have fully disarmed and ceased criminal business activities, hasn't delivered. The world was reminded of that this week after an audacious $42 million bank robbery in Belfast bore all the signs of a sophisticated IRA job, or one carried out by an IRA offshoot.

Thankfully, the British, Irish, and US governments have not given up on the Good Friday accord. For more than a year, they've been trying to tackle the unresolved issues so they could bring back a power-sharing government.

Their job was made particularly difficult, however, by last year's elections in Northern Ireland. Voters gave moderates the boot, and instead supported the two most extreme parties: the Democratic Unionists, representing the Protestants; and Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, for the Catholics.

This fall, these parties' leaders, pressured by London, Washington, and Dublin, came close to finalizing a a comprehensive deal to resolve outstanding issues, including full disarming of the IRA by Christmas. The Unionists wanted photographic proof of disarmament. But the IRA refused, saying that was humiliating.

No disarmament will be found in this year's Christmas stocking - rather, a lump of coal, called mistrust. The IRA has never provided details of the kind or number of scrapped weapons, so no wonder Unionists want proof.

Senator Mitchell called trust the "necessary lubricant in any diverse, democratic society." It takes a long time, he said, to create trust. The IRA is needlessly prolonging the process.

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