- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2000

The Irish Republican Army wins first prize this week for play acting, even as the 2-month-old government of Northern Ireland is days from collapsing. "The IRA want a permanent peace and are totally committed to the peace process," the paramilitary group said this week, as it has for several years now. Yet two months after the Protestant Ulster Unionists agreed to form a power-sharing executive with the IRA's political wing, the Sinn Fein, on the condition that decommissioning of weapons begin by the end of January, the IRA has yet to turn over a single weapon. With no excuses left, the onus is on the IRA and Sinn Fein to give proof of their sincerity.

The Protestant head of the new shared government, David Trimble, has said he would resign by Feb. 12 if the IRA hadn't begun disarming. Now the independent commission responsible for reviewing the paramilitaries' disarmament completed their review this week with the IRA failing the test. But Britain, Northern Ireland, the Unionists and even Sinn Fein know that without Mr. Trimble leading the Protestants, the peace process will stall indefinitely. Any who would replace him would be far less likely to continue to negotiate and compromise with the Catholic Republicans.

Sinn Fein's unwillingness at this juncture to be definitive on when and whether the IRA will give up arms leaves few viable options. London, however, has provided an alternative that would rescue the process without losing Mr. Trimble. The British government will introduce a bill today which would give Britain the power to govern Northern Ireland again while the Protestant leader and the rest of the new shared executive government keep their positions in an unofficial capacity until an agreement can be reached.

This allows Britain to turn the flood lights onto the IRA more pointedly than ever before. "The institutions though can only work on the basis of cross-community confidence," Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Mandelson said yesterday in the House of Commons. "Without clarity over decommissioning I have no doubt that this confidence will ebb quickly."

The legislation will be considered by the House of Commons on Monday and Tuesday and passed later in the week unless the IRA decides before then that it is serious about the peace process. If the Northern Irish executive is frozen, a review conference of the peace process run by the governments of Britain and Ireland would take place.

"I am as eager as anyone else to heal the wounds of our society through inclusive politics and economic revival," Mr. Trimble wrote in the Belfast Telegraph yesterday. "The trappings of office cannot tempt me to permit a sustained corruption of the democratic process, however … The whole community looks to the Sinn Fein leadership to rescue the Belfast Agreement. They have the ability. Do they have the commitment?"

That is the question. The Unionists agreed to risk trusting a party whose members still carried guns in their back pockets by forming an executive with them without visible evidence of their commitment. Now they are extending their hands again, knowing that an incorruptible partnership is the only one that is acceptable.

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