Like America, N. Ireland Argues About Guns

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Giving up its symbols is just about the hardest thing for a nationalist movement to do, and the quintessential symbol of Irish republicanism is the assault rifle. That is at the heart of the tricky situation facing British and Irish leaders, who, with a Wednesday deadline looming, on Tuesday entered a second day of make-or-break crisis talks on Northern Ireland’s future. "We’ve got to know that the gun will be taken out of Northern Irish politics," said Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair. "People will neither understand nor forgive if we don’t make this thing work... We are going to sort it out." At issue is the Unionist refusal to allow Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, into the territory’s new local government structure until the IRA begins turning over its weapons. Sinn Fein insists that the Unionists are reinterpreting the Good Friday Agreement signed last year, and Blair hopes to forge a compromise.

The gesture being demanded of the IRA –- a small-scale decommissioning of arms –- is essentially symbolic, but that symbolism cuts to the core of the historic confrontation between loyalists who want the province to remain part of Britain and nationalists who believe they’re fighting an anti-colonial war. If the institutions agreed on last year were designed to shift the conflict from a paramilitary to a political track and foster a basis for coexistence between the republican Catholic and loyalist Protestant communities, then the breakdown over weapons signals the scale of that challenge. All that, of course, is in the long term. Loyalist groups have announced they will defy Monday night’s ban by the British authorities of next Sunday’s annual loyalist march through the Catholic neighborhood of Drumcree, which usually provokes outbreaks of communal violence. Drumcree may yet prove a brutal reminder to Northern Ireland’s politicians of why they needed a peace process in the first place.