A showdown over disarmament is looming once again in Northern Ireland.
The British Parliament is poised to approve legislation today that would restore direct British rule over Northern Ireland as early as tomorrow, unless a compromise can be reached over the Irish Republican Army's failure to disarm, or decommission, its paramilitary arsenal.
The paramilitary group has said it accepts the idea of disarmament as part of a genuine peace, but will not be bound by a deadline.
Speaking before the House of Commons, the lower house of Parliament Tuesday, Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson said, "I still hope it will prove unnecessary to implement [direct rule]," suspending the coalition Cabinet in Belfast that assumed considerable responsibilities over the province two months ago. "But that depends on changes, developments which have not yet taken place."
A suspension would damage the peace process, but it could be the only way to prevent a complete political free fall.
While pressure continues to build on the IRA and its political ally, Sinn Fein, leaders of the movement have steadfastly refused to hand over weapons. That final IRA concession, if it comes, would forever change the political landscape.
David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and main voice of pro-British Protestants in Northern Ireland, has led the calls for IRA decommissioning.
Under a deal late last year, Mr. Trimble agreed to form the Cabinet - which includes members of Sinn Fein. But he pledged to resign if the IRA didn't move quickly on disarmament. His party is due to hold a meeting on Saturday to review the situation, which precipitated the current crisis.
In the past, such moves have left Trimble isolated. Now, he is receiving widespread support.
In a recent editorial, the Irish Times said the responsibility for breaking the deadlock now lies "on the shoulders of the IRA and Sinn Fein."
In a public opinion poll sponsored by the paper, 86 percent of respondents favored decommissioning, while the British, Irish, and even US governments are pushing the point.
President Clinton said yesterday, "I just hope everyone - everyone - will belly up to the bar and do their part so that we don't have any kind of backsliding or reversal here. We've come too far."
But according to journalist Kevin Toolis, whose book, "Rebel Hearts," closely examined IRA doctrine, such appeals are useless. "The IRA carried out a guerrilla war for decades despite public criticism," Mr. Toolis says. "So they are hardly going to be swayed by it now."
Those who call for IRA disarmament, Toolis says, do not understand its members' thinking. "The IRA sees themselves as an army. What is an army without weapons?
"Every generation or so, for hundreds of years, there has been a push to drive the British out of Ireland. The IRA views itself as part of that struggle. Decommissioning would betray that ideal," he says.
Dr. Richard Wilford, Politics Professor at Belfast's Queens University, points out that while the past century of Irish politics has been shaped by violence, no other group has ever disarmed.
In Ireland itself, the two major political parties - Fianna Fail and Fine Gael - have their roots in the uprising against British rule. After independence was won in 1920, the two sides fought each other in a bloody civil war. For the most part, those weapons simply rusted away.
In 1912, Irish Protestants formed a militia to defend their ties to Britain. Prominent politicians and thousands of volunteers signed a covenant pledging to fight against any loosening of British jurisdiction. That force became the foundation for the current Unionist movement.
"[Sinn Fein President] Gerry Adams is right to say there is no precedent for decommissioning," says Dr. Wilford. "There is no real precedent for any army, while remaining undefeated, being forced to disarm. Still, the IRA is being asked to set a precedent, not observe one."
One concern is that IRA splinter groups, opposed to the current peace process, will exploit decommissioning. Though small and ill-equipped, such factions do pose a threat.
It was a "Real IRA" bomb that killed 29 civilians in the town of Omagh in August 1998. On Sunday, another group, the "Continuity IRA" claimed responsibility for a bomb blast at a provincial hotel. No one was hurt.
"If the IRA accepts that this is the final settlement - not a temporary arrangement - then they have no more need for weapons," says political commentator Eamon McCann. "But if the IRA is ever going to decommission, they have to prepare their people. So far, they have allowed them to believe that guns will never be handed over."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society