Hope Rekindles in Ulster

To many observers, the impossible is happening in Northern Ireland. It's not as spectacular as the Good Friday peace agreement of a year and a half ago. But it may be more significant.

Leaders on both sides of the province's often violent political divide are avowing more publicly than ever before the imperative of working together.

The most tangible benefit of this came Wednesday. In a move that could break a long deadlock over disarmament, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) agreed to take part in negotiations with Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, chief of the arms decommissioning body established by the 1998 peace plan.

Earlier, Gerry Adams, president of the IRA's political ally, Sinn Fein, had proclaimed violence "now a thing of the past, over, done with, and gone."

Paul Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, the largest Protestant political group, called for "mutual respect and tolerance rather than division and alienation."

That action and these words come after 10 weeks of extraordinarily patient encouraging, talking, and bargaining led by George Mitchell, the former majority leader of the US Senate. He played a central role in completing the Good Friday pact and was called back this fall when the agreement seemed to be unraveling.

The apparent barrier was disarmament. The underlying barrier was bitter distrust, which may finally be coming down. Major tests remain. Mr. Trimble, for instance, must convince his party's skeptics that the IRA move justifies immediate power-sharing with Sinn Fein.

This process deserves our hopes and prayers - in solidarity with Northern Ireland's people, and people everywhere who yearn for peace.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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