N. Ireland's decisive move toward peace

First they called a truce. Then they signed a peace deal. Disarmament came next, followed by a commitment to end the armed struggle for good.

Now, Northern Ireland's Catholic republicans have finally decided to endorse the province's police force – a move that unlocks the political process and reverses more than 80 years of resistance to British law.

"It is a major event," says Eddie McGrady, a moderate republican and member of Parliament for the centrist Social Democratic and Labour Party. "It is a hugely significant statement. For the first time in a century, the republican outlook has recognized the legitimacy of the security forces and policing both north and south of the border."

Sunday's vote in a special conference of Sinn Fein, the political vanguard of the Irish Republican Army, was passed by almost 90 percent of delegates. It commits the party to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the criminal-justice system. For so decisive a break with the past, there was relatively little dissent.

The move was a decisive step forward for a political process that aims to have Catholic republicans and their bitter rivals in the pro-British Protestant unionist camp running a government together in Belfast by the end of March.

Suspicious unionists had warned that they could not work with a party that did not accept the rule of law.

Monday, they admitted that Sinn Fein had gone some way to addressing their concern.

"We have made headway. I wouldn't deny that," said Ian Paisley, the hard-line Protestant leader who heads the Democratic Unionist Party. "If you had told me 20 years ago that they (republicans) would be repudiating the very fundamentals of Sinn Fein/IRA, I would have laughed, but that is what they have done."

As ever with the stop-start, on-off peace process, ifs and buts remain. The Sinn Fein vote says the leaders will commit to policing only once the new powersharing government is up and running. Mr. Paisley condemned this as a "post-dated check" that he said "is no good" until pay day.

"They have to pay out now," he added.

Still, the Sinn Fein vote is expected to thrust Northern Ireland firmly back to a road map for devolved government agreed upon at St. Andrews, Scotland, last October.

On Tuesday, Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, both of whom hailed the vote, are expected to say enough has been done to warrant fresh elections on March 7.

The new assembly, which will sit at the Stormont parliament building in Belfast, will select a 12-member cabinet. If, as expected, Paisley's DUP wins, he is likely to get the post of first minister. Sinn Fein, which is likely to be the second most- popular party, would probably get the deputy job, and may nominate Martin McGuinness.

Some like Paisley might wonder how republicans have come so far from the days when, in the name of trying to reunite Ireland and secure a better deal for the Catholic minority in the north, they waged war on police and security services. More than 300 officers in the former Royal Ulster Constabulary died during the 30-year "Troubles," the majority killed by the IRA.

Experts say a number of factors have pushed Sinn Fein. Henry Patterson, professor of politics at Ulster University, says astute leaders like Gerry Adams and Mr. McGuinness realized that the armed struggle was not going to yield a united Ireland.

"By the end of the 1980s, they were losing," he says. "They had to get away from their bombing past. They have done it very skillfully."

He warns that not everyone in the republican movement may act in good faith. Some, he says, believe in the reversal of Clausewitz's famous dictum: that politics is the continuation of war by other means.

Others say the real turning point for Northern Ireland was an event that occurred thousands of miles away. The attacks of Sept. 11 made terror attacks anathema to ordinary people. Political discourse may remain polarized, but an increasingly prosperous, apolitical public is weary of the rhetoric and wants normalization.

Feargal Cochrane, an expert in ethnic conflicts at England's Lancaster University, says that the shift in attitudes in the American-Irish diaspora had a big influence. Once, financial support came from activists happy to bankroll prison support and even weapons. This was superseded in the 1990s by corporate Irish-American supporters less comfortable with the armed struggle.

Still, there are many disenchanted republicans who don't support Sinn Fein's moderation. One former IRA member who was imprisoned, Gerry McGeough, announced his intent to run against Sinn Fein in coming elections. Others have hinted that they have signed up for policing to "destroy the force from within."

McGrady says that Sinn Fein will have to actively encourage cooperation with the police and oppose criminality energetically to demonstrate its good faith. "There still is a fault line, in that to articulate support for the police when you have physically and violently opposed it, requires more than just a statement," he says.

This might mean, for example, giving evidence against criminal republican elements, or turning in the so-called "freelance" criminals supposedly operating independently of Sinn Fein or the IRA.

The republican movement's peaceable credentials were badly damaged by the December 2004 Northern Bank robbery and the notorious murder a month later of a Catholic, Robert McCartney, in Belfast. On both occasions, republicans were suspected – but cooperation with the police was unforthcoming.

Since then, however, the review panel assessing the IRA's proclivity for violence and crime has reported a favorable tendency. A report due out Tuesday, to be published by the British and Irish governments, is expected to confirm that trend.

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