London governs Northern Ireland by direct rule. It faces the challenging task of being fair to all sides: reassuring Protestants they can remain British so long as the majority in Ulster so votes, reassuring the Catholic minority that their interests are being protected, and working evenhandedly with the Irish government. Irish Government
The Irish Republic has no legal jurisdiction over Northern Ireland. But Dublin wants to ensure that the interests of Ulster Catholics are protected and is pressing for more influence. But Ulster's Protestants argue that Ireland, ``a foreign country,'' has no right to meddle in the United Kingdom's affairs. Provisional IRA
The outlawed Provisional Irish Republican Army was formed in 1969. The original IRA still exists, but it tacitly recognized the London, Dublin, and Belfast governments in the late '60s. The Provisional IRA became one of the most ruthless terrorist groups in the Western world. Intelligence sources estimate it has several hundred active members and several thousand helpers. Sinn Fein
The political wing of the Provisional IRA was proscribed by the British until 1974. The party has limited electoral appeal (9 percent in the Irish Republic and 2 percent in Northern Ireland) but expertise in propaganda. President Gerry Adams is a formidable communicator, despite a British ban on news media appearances.
Ulster Defense Association
The Protestant paramilitary organization was formed in 1971 as a coordinating body for vigilante groups, and bred offshoots such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Freedom Fighters. The UDA became involved in the murder of Catholics and some of its own members, and in racketeering. In 1988, a new breed of ruthless militants ousted the leadership. The loyalist paramilitaries have the capacity to continue the violence and exploit fears of Protestants about a British sellout. Ulster Unionist Party
Ulster's biggest party governed Northern Ireland until direct British rule was reimposed in 1972. In 1973 the party split, the majority becoming known as the official UUP. Leader James Molyneaux has influential friends in London - not least Prime Minister John Major, who needs his support to stay in power. The party gave heavily qualified backing to the Downing Street Declaration and seeks assurance from London that majority rule will prevail in Ulster. Democratic Unionist Party
Formed in 1971, the DUP supports an extreme right-wing, anti-Catholic position. It is led by a firebrand preacher, the Rev. Ian Paisley. The DUP has been consistently suspicious of Britain's will to put down IRA terrorism, and sees the current elevation of the IRA as a major mistake by Britian. Social Democratic and Labour Party
The moderate, nationalist party has an overwhelmingly Catholic membership; its objective is Irish unity by nonviolent means. Party Leader John Hume has effectively argued the case for peaceful Irish unity in Dublin and Washington, and to some extent in London. His lengthy dialogue with Sinn Fein President Adams drew widespread criticism, but if peace is eventually delivered, he will be seen as a politician of great courage.