The effort to end three decades of sectarian violence that claimed more than 3,500 lives in Northern Ireland has made another major stride forward.
In breakthrough statements on Nov. 16, Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader David Trimble and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, chief spokesman for the province's opposing religious communities, publicly committed themselves to a step-by-step deal on implementing peace.
Mr. Trimble, who heads Northern Ireland's largest pro-British party and is due to become first minister of a new ruling council, agreed for the first time to allow Sinn Fein, the political ally of the Irish Republican Army, to join the power-sharing council in Belfast, probably early in December.
Trimble said: "There is now a chance to create a genuine partnership between Unionists and nationalists in a novel form of government."
Until now, he has opposed a Sinn Fein presence on the executive council, insisting that the IRA must first surrender its weapons.
In a dovetailing statement issued shortly after Trimble spoke, Mr. Adams called for an end to political violence and "punishment beatings" and said the handing in of terrorist weapons was "an essential part of the peace process."
He added, however, that arms decommissioning must be on a "voluntary basis."
In the past, Adams has refused to make an explicit commitment on decommissioning. Punishment beatings of Protestant opponents by pro-IRA gangs have been a feature of terrorist violence in Northern Ireland for many years.
Adams said he was committing his party exclusively to democratic means of achieving political progress and was "totally committed" to the peace process that began under the April 1998 Good Friday accord. "There is no doubt that we are entering into the final stages of the resolution of the conflict," he said.
In a crucial follow-up move expected Nov. 18, the IRA is widely reported to be ready to issue its own peace pledge. It reportedly will appoint a go-between to coordinate with the mediation team under former US Sen. George Mitchell and begin the long-awaited process of handing over terrorist weapons and explosives ahead of a May, 2000 deadline.
The two leaders' declarations, part of an expected series of synchronized peace moves in coming days, climaxed 10 weeks of often bitter behind-the-scenes negotiations chaired by Mr. Mitchell.
Both leaders privately acknowledged that they were counting on their ability to sell the compromise to their grass-roots supporters.
Trimble's position appears more vulnerable than that of Adams. Many in his party, including deputy leader John Taylor, have pledged to oppose the peace deal, claiming Trimble has broken promises to reject any compromise with Sinn Fein and the IRA.
Trimble's supporters accept that by agreeing to a deal with Sinn Fein, their leader has put his political career on the line. But they are forecasting that when the 860-member UUP ruling council meets on Nov. 27, he will probably win the day.
Trimble is reported to have told friends that if he fails to do so, he will resign as UUP leader.
Paul Bew, professor of politics at the University of Belfast, says it is "far from certain" that Trimble's gambit will succeed. "The forces opposing him in the Unionist camp are numerous and formidable, and the prospect of a deep split in UUP ranks is virtually certain."
Acknowledging the still-fragile state of the agreement, Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson said: "Now we either go step by step into the future or let fear of failure destroy our chance of success. I think the people want us to give it a go."
The British government said this week's breakthrough owed a huge amount to Mitchell's diplomatic skill and dogged persistence as a mediator.
According to sources close to the secret talks, Mitchell simply wore the two sides down by insisting that that they reach an agreement reflecting the will of a majority of Northern Ireland's population. Opinion surveys have consistently shown a large overall majority in favor of a peace deal.
In his first public comment since secret negotiations began in August, Mitchell said the parties had "engaged with one another in an unprecedented manner."
A key figure in the planned arms handover process will be Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, head of the arms decommissioning agency set up under the April 1998 peace agreement.
General de Chastelain issued a statement on Nov. 15 saying he planned to hold early talks with the IRA and other paramilitary groups to arrange the handing in of terrorist weapons and explosives.
He said successful arms decommissioning was key to implementation of the overall settlement.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society