'Beyond Use' in N. Ireland

Peace in Northern Ireland is often like slow-motion tennis. The ball passes over the net every few months, sometimes briefly accelerating into back-and-forth rally.

But that may be changing. Despite much progress since the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, Britain suspended Northern Ireland's new power-sharing legislative body nearly three months ago. It did so when the Irish Republican Army - the chief armed opponent of British rule in the province - refused to begin disarming, forcing a threat from Protestant Unionists to pull out of the deal.

Now, however, the pace of events is picking up.

Late last week, Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, proposed restarting the joint Protestant-Catholic parliament on May 22 - the date originally set for completing the disarmament of Northern Ireland's militias. They also laid out a number of steps that will follow, including a stronger human rights code for Northern Ireland.

Most important, the IRA quickly lobbed back its best offer yet for neutralizing its substantial arsenal. The IRA stopped short of actually agreeing to hand over weapons. Instead, it pledged to place its guns and explosives dumps "beyond use" by opening them to regular inspections by outside parties. Between inspections, the IRA would "seal" the sites to prevent the arms from being used.

The ball is now in the court of the Ulster Unionists, the major pro-British party. The party's leader, David Trimble, has to see whether this is enough to bring his rank and file back into governmental partnership with Sinn Fein, the political party allied with the IRA.

Some of Mr. Trimble's colleagues will want to hold out for the actual physical transfer of weaponry. But stubbornness on that point right now would be a mistake. The IRA offer clearly represents new ground, as Trimble acknowledged.

The peace deal was designed to take baby-steps toward building trust. Leaving certain issues - such as total and unambiguous disarmament - for resolution at a later date may be necessary as the two communities find common ground.

As it is, the IRA arms will be inspected by credible, foreign statesmen: Finnish ex-president and diplomat Martti Ahtisaari and South African Cyril Ramaphosa, former head of the African National Congress. Moreover, the IRA says it is primed to resume negotiations with the disarmament commission set up under the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

Skepticism regarding IRA pledges may be understandable, given the history of mistrust in Northern Ireland. But it's insufficient reason to let this opportunity pass. True demilitarization of the North is in the offing, along with true power-sharing so that all parties can pursue their aims peaceably. The context is right, since for all its slow pace, the Good Friday agreement has tangibly lessened tensions.

The parties in Northern Ireland should end their slow-motion tennis match and do a little sprinting toward real peace.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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