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Editorial: Disarming realism / The IRA at long last puts weapons 'beyond use'

Monday, October 29, 2001

Better very late than never, the Irish Republican Party announced last week -- to the satisfaction even of skeptics -- that it had begun putting "beyond use" its guns and explosives, the quid pro quo for the continued participation of the paramilitary group's allies in a new Northern Ireland government.

This is a turning point in a political and religious conflict that has taken more than 3,000 lives in the past three decades.

"Beyond use" is a deliberately vague diplomatic term that covers everything from the melting down of military hardware to its encasement in concrete. But exactly how weapons are being put "beyond use" is less important than the fact that the IRA is credibly making good on a central presupposition of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement midwifed by the United States

While things could still come unstuck, the IRA's action has transformed the political and military landscape in Northern Ireland. David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist politician who is "first minister" of a coalition government in Belfast, is now pulling back from the precipice of dissolving that historic experiment in Protestant-Catholic cooperation. For its part, the British government moved quickly to reciprocate by lowering its military profile in the North.

Explanations abound as to why the IRA finally acted: The British government and Mr. Trimble were tiring of the legal maneuvers by which London kept the coalition alive. Roman Catholic church leaders were pressing the IRA on the disarmament issue, implicitly challenging the group's claim to represent oppressed Catholics in the North.

Some analysts even point to last month's attacks on New York and Washington, which -- besides stirring memories of IRA terrorism -- put the paramilitary group on notice that the legitimacy Sinn Fein has received in American political circles might erode post-Sept. 11.

Whatever the explanation for the timing of the IRA's move, it was indispensable to the continuation of a reform process in which the governments of Britain and the Irish Republic often have been more flexible and imaginative than their respective constituents in Northern Ireland.

While agreeing that the predominantly Protestant North will leave the United Kingdom only by the consent of a majority of its inhabitants, both Dublin and London have promoted the idea of Protestant-Catholic "power sharing." Under power-sharing, the long-oppressed Catholic minority has more political influence than it would enjoy in a U.S.-style system of majority rule. Far-reaching reforms are also in the works for Northern Ireland's Protestant-dominated police force.

With IRA disarmament, Sinn Fein will be free to participate fully in the new Northern Ireland, but as a political party with a detailed and debatable agenda, not as the standard-bearers for an "armed struggle" against British occupation whose victims were often innocent civilians.

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