Peace Process in Northern Ireland Takes One Step Forward, One Back

Little more than a month before the next milestone in Northern Ireland's peace process, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its political arm, Sinn Fein, remain torn between democracy and violence.

In a surprise decision, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said Wednesday that his party would be taking part in Northern Ireland's elections on May 30, which would pave the way for June 10 peace talks.

But also on Wednesday, traffic in a large area of London was halted by an explosion under Hammersmith Bridge, a main artery in and out of the British capital. Police said the blast, which did no serious damage, appeared to be the work of the IRA. Yet they found 30 pounds of Semtex explosive that remained unexploded beside the detonator. Had the explosives detonated, it would have wrecked the bridge, police said.

The explosion highlighted uncertainty among members of the British Parliament over whether Mr. Adams can persuade the IRA to reinstate its 17-month cease-fire. Unless it does so by June 10, Sinn Fein will be unable to participate in the talks, even though it is taking part in the election.

Adams is in an unenviable situation. As well as having to carry the IRA with him in the quest for peace, he is reported to be under intense pressure from Washington to stick with the peace process.

Adams announced Sinn Fein's willingness to contest the elections after weeks of hesitation. He did so within minutes of the House of Commons passing a bill paving the way for elections and the all-party talks, which are intended to hammer out a lasting peace settlement.

A few hours earlier, Northern Ireland's moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) said it too would field candidates on May 30. Sinn Fein sees the SDLP as its competition for Northern Ireland's Catholic vote and has said that if the SDLP stood in the election, so would Sinn Fein.

The timing of the blast also appeared heavily symbolic - on the 80th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Uprising in Ireland, which marked the beginning of a nationalist campaign against British rule.

The blast showed that the IRA was "ignoring Sinn Fein's wishes" and "blocking attempts to revive the peace process," said David Wilshire, vice chairman of the ruling Conservative Party's Northern Ireland committee in Britain's House of Commons.

There was "no prospect" of a new cease-fire by the IRA unless it could be convinced that the planned peace negotiations would be genuine, said top Sinn Fein strategist Martin McGuinness shortly before the explosion Wednesday. He demanded the removal of all preconditions to Sinn Fein's involvement in the peace process.

It seems clear that the impasse can be broken only if London or Sinn Fein, with the IRA, back away from their entrenched positions. Yet London has given no hint of flexibility, and, as yet, neither has the IRA.

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