- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 9, 2000

For the Irish Republican Army (IRA), disarming was always a matter of doing it their way. Just weeks ahead of the May 22 deadline set forth by the Good Friday peace accord, the major paramilitary organization announced Saturday that it would allow international observers to inspect its weapons, to ensure they had been put beyond use. Though this didn't fit the formula many Ulster Unionists had sought, it was still a step in the right direction for the Northern Irish peace process.

The Protestant Unionists would like to see the arms cache completely destroyed or handed over to the British government before the IRA's political partners, the Sinn Fein, would sit in a Northern Irish ruling body with them. But Unionist leader David Trimble welcomed the IRA statement with cautious optimism. Even Unionist deputy leader John Taylor who survived a 1972 assassination attempt in which an IRA gunman shot him 16 times is now calling the IRA offer a "breakthrough." Before the IRA statement, Mr. Taylor said the peace process had only a 4 percent chance of succeeding, but now he sees the Unionist council approving the offer in its meeting May 20.

So far, the IRA has agreed to let international inspectors which would be led by former African National Congress chief Cyril Ramaphosa and Finnish ex-president Martti Ahtisaari to inspect their secret arms dumps on a regular basis in accordance with an independent international disarmament commission. Observations of the dumps would begin at the end of May or beginning of June and must be completed by June 2001. If the proposition is accepted, the way will be cleared for the Northern Irish shared executive frozen by the British government over the arms issue since February to be reactivated May 22.

Should the Unionists respond positively to such a proposal? They can't afford not to. The current offer by the IRA is the most positive statement toward the peace process to date. Though it may not be all the Unionists want today, accepting the IRA's offer will provide the necessary transition period toward the day when all paramilitaries will be in a position to dispose of their weapons.

Time is of the essence. If Unionists do not accept the offer before May 22, and the shared executive is not reactivated, the fragile trust built between the two parties this weekend will be severely damaged. Restless unionist hard-liners have criticized Mr. Trimble's attempts to jump-start the peace process this month, fearing he is conceding too much by allowing the executive to be reactivated before decommissioning takes place. Though their fears are understandable, in the independent disarmament commission the Unionists have an objective accountability measure which would force the IRA and Sinn Fein to turn their promises into more than rhetoric or face the consequences (which would likely once again be a freeze on self-governance.)

For Unionist leaders to rally support for the offer as soon as possible would mean decreasing the likelihood that extremists from both sides interrupt the peace process. Both sides have now verbalized their willingness to take risks for the sake of peace. If those intentions become reality in the Unionist vote May 20 and during the disarming process over the next year, there could hope for the future.

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