Sifting N. Ireland's Peace

In Northern Ireland, once-warring parties have been working together in a power-sharing arrangement for more than a year. They've actually accomplished some things, providing basic services like education and housing.

But most eyes, it seems, are on what hasn't been done. Specifically, the Irish Republican Army has yet to turn over a single weapon to the independent disarmament agency set up under the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998.

That failing has been played upon mercilessly by extremists on the Protestant side of Northern Ireland's traditional divide. David Trimble, the moderate Ulster Unionist leader who helped negotiate the agreement, has been blasted for being willing to serve as first minister in the new government alongside representatives of Sinn Fein, the Catholic party allied with the IRA.

Parliamentary and local council elections held last week indicated that public support is seeping from Mr. Trimble to his critics in the staunchly anti-agreement Democratic Unionist Party. At the same time, Catholic voters showed a marked trend toward Sinn Fein and away from the more moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party.

All of which renews the question: Can Northern Ireland's remarkably promising peace deal be more fully implemented? On the positive side are firm commitments to the Good Friday pact by the governments of Britain and Ireland. Their talks to bolster the agreement begin afresh next week. Meanwhile, both sides are gaining practical experience by sharing political power.

The looming negative factor is the apprehension that one or both sides might revert to historical patterns of violence. A clear step toward disarmament, beyond the few arms-dump inspections that the IRA has allowed, could start to dispel that cloud of fear and win over many who doubt peace is possible. Reform of the provincial police force, long dominated by Protestants, has to go forward too.

It's far from too late for Northern Ireland's people to show that they can emerge from a dark, labyrinthine past and build a future based on hard-won trust and cooperation.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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