A Practical Step In N. Ireland

Before the British elections Thursday, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said all the right things about getting Northern Ireland back on the peace-process track.

He called on the Irish Republican Army (IRA) - his Catholic party's paramilitary wing - to embrace "purely political and democratic activity." He also identified "real and lasting peace" as the most important campaign issue, and he spoke of "a return to the negotiating table."

These lofty words will float like puffy clouds of rhetoric unless he grounds them with action. And nowhere is this more urgent than in getting the IRA to give up its weapons and mafia-style criminality.

The 1998 Good Friday accord dealing with the Catholic-Protestant dispute required just this step - an essential security measure after three decades of sectarian violence claimed more than 3,500 lives.

But the accord has yet to be fully implemented. The bomb blasts and attacks are over; however, the power-sharing government called for in the peace pact collapsed in 2002, and rule reverted to London. Negotiations to reinstate an executive government broke down in December over precisely this issue of arms. Protestants demanded proof - photographs - of the IRA disarming. The IRA refused.

The route to IRA progress on this issue is through its political side and Mr. Adams. He's now on record, or at least sounds as if he is, that the IRA must disarm. But while he waits for an IRA conversion, he can further try to persuade the IRA by taking a practical step away from paramilitarism.

That step would be to throw Sinn Fein support behind Northern Ireland's relatively new Policing Board, tasked with building impartial policing - another provision of the Good Friday accord. Even though the Catholic church endorses the board, Sinn Fein won't participate.

Unbiased policing speaks directly to the trust required to shape a truly functioning democratic Northern Ireland. Nothing illustrates this better than the case of Robert McCartney, a Catholic killed outside a bar in an IRA neighborhood in Belfast on Jan. 30. His sisters have undertaken a global publicity effort to try his case in court. But for fear of IRA retaliation, no witnesses will come forward, even though it's widely known who the killers are.

In this case of IRA vigilantism, Adams appears to be on the side of the law. He's called for people to speak up, and has expelled two witnesses from Sinn Fein for failing to provide information. But Adams could set an example by actually assisting law enforcement, instead of internally working the Sinn Fein/IRA system. Even more, he could use this as an opportunity to encourage Catholics to join the police force.

As long as Sinn Fein tolerates IRA vigilante justice and criminality, it's hard to take Adams's words seriously when he says the IRA must change.

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