Ulster: Down to the Wire

The Northern Ireland peace accord faces a tight deadline. Only a few days are left until April 2, when British officials plan to transfer authority over the province to an executive body formed under the peace plan, whether the local parties are ready or not.

It has been clear for some time that they're not ready - yet. Their balkiness has one major source: an impasse over decommissioning arms.

President Clinton last week tried to convince Unionist and Republican leaders that they could get past this blockage. At a St. Patrick's Day reception in the White House, he reminded Unionist leader David Trimble and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, that the lives of future generations depend on compromise and cooperation now. Mr. Trimble and Mr. Adams have since met, generating some positive notes but no breakthrough.

These men, shrewd politicians who have already shown a capacity for enlightened compromise, undoubtedly know the stakes. Long-term peace and a share in governance serve everyone's interests. But the short-term risks of bucking one's constituency have caused political paralysis.

If Mr. Trimble allows Sinn Fein to take seats in Northern Ireland's new Cabinet without first exacting clear evidence that it's ready to disarm, he might fragment the Unionists and lose his leadership post. Mr. Adams is equally hampered by his side's grim insistence on holding onto its guns.

That insistence must yield. Last year's Good Friday peace agreement may not have specified that arms would have to be turned over before Sinn Fein would be seated in the new government. But it clearly anticipated disarmament, and a team headed by Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain stands ready to oversee the process.

A little movement by Adams and the IRA - a formal commitment to start disarming in sync with the start-up of the new government - could be enough.

The recent murder of Catholic activist lawyer Rosemary Nelson by Protestant renegades only heightens the urgency. This Easter season's message of renewal should have a refrain in Northern Ireland's decisive rise from its self-destructive "troubles."

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