IRA Turns the Tables in N. Ireland Peace Process

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Like a long-running soap opera, the characters in Northern Ireland's peace process rotate roles from episode to episode. Two months ago the IRA were the implacable hard men whose refusal to hand over weapons cast them as the villains in the breakdown of the process; now, they've donned the mantle of peacemaker and left the Ulster Unionists to choose between the bad guy role and some sort of short-term happy ending. Unionist leader David Trimble was battling Monday to persuade hard-liners on his own side to at least give serious attention to an IRA offer over the weekend to begin putting its weapons "completely and verifiably beyond use." The offer, which would involve storing weapons at dumps where they can be accounted for by members of the international commission that will supervise the region's disarmament, is the Republican militants' response to pressure for progress on the decommissioning of their arms after Britain in February suspended Northern Ireland's self-rule institutions to head off a Unionist walkout.

While the hard-liners in the Unionist camp want nothing short of total surrender of all IRA weapons, Britain has accepted the Republican offer and has urged the Unionist leadership to do the same. Adding to the pressure on the Unionists is London's plan to lift the suspension of the self-rule institutions two weeks from Monday. The Unionists' ruling council, in which Trimble's majority is somewhat tenuous when it comes to the peace process, will consider the IRA offer two days before that, creating yet another dramatic showdown in the two-year-old saga of the Good Friday Agreement.

In the end, the dispute is primarily symbolic: The Republicans believe they're fighting an anti-colonial war, and even though they haven't fired a shot in anger in the almost three years since they adopted their latest cease-fire, they refuse to simply hand over their weapons as long as the British army remains in Northern Ireland because they perceive that would be to surrender their legitimacy. Hence the convoluted semantics of "completely and verifiably beyond use." But the Unionists regard the IRA gunmen as nothing more than criminals, and despite the carefully choreographed measures prescribed by the Good Friday Agreement, Trimble has faced a growing mutiny within his own ranks over sharing the reins of government with the Sinn Fein while their IRA allies still have access to arms. So, while the last episode had Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams desperately trying to coax a disarmament gesture out of his hard men, the dramatic spotlight now shifts to Trimble's efforts to placate his own skeptics.