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Show of faith in N. Ireland; Laying down arms: IRA must begin handing in weapons to aid fledgling regime's success.


A FEW rocket launchers and sticks of explosives stand between a new beginning in Northern Ireland and retreat to stalemate.

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) must begin handing over weapons by March 10, or the new provincial government will not start on that date.

Last April's Good Friday accord calls for all paramilitary weapons to be "decommissioned" -- handed over to an international commission for destruction -- by May 2000. It did not specify when decommissioning had to begin. Nor did it say when the British army needed to withdraw from the streets, or when the British and Irish Republic governments needed to begin releasing convicted killers, yet these actions are under way.

David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party met this week with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, and included the IRA in the executive council. The new Northern Ireland Assembly approved the executive council and six joint committees with the Irish Republic.

The entire Catholic, or nationalist, minority wants this to succeed. The Protestant, or loyalist, majority of the population is evenly divided. That produced a thumping 77-29 vote in the assembly for the arrangements.

Mr. Trimble, the first minister, insists on a start to decommissioning before seating two Sinn Fein members on his 12-member executive council. He needs to strengthen Protestant confidence in this sharing of power, or it will fail -- particularly if the IRA appears to be waiting to resume terrorism.

What is demanded is only a token gesture to start. Yet the IRA is resisting. Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern courageously spoke up on Mr. Trimble's side of the issue, then retreated under criticism.

All friends of peace and power-sharing in Northern Ireland, including the Clinton administration, should be telling Sinn Fein and the IRA the same message:

For this to succeed, the IRA must begin decommissioning as part of a confidence-building formula that must be completed within 15 months.

Pub Date: 2/20/99

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