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Negotiating the Impossible

THE hard work of people of good faith has achieved the difficult in Northern Ireland. The impossible is merely taking a bit longer.

That is the big picture that should be kept in view in the midst of the greatest violence and confrontation in Northern Ireland since the Irish Republican Army declared its cease-fire 10 months ago.

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More tense days may lie immediately ahead, whipped up by this year's annual Protestant "marching season." The Royal Ulster Constabulary broke with an 188-year tradition this year when it allowed Catholics to block the marching route of Protestants through a Catholic neighborhood for two days. Such Protestant parades a quarter-century ago led to violence and resulted in British troops being brought in to patrol the streets. In recent days more than 200 vehicles have been set ablaze and at least one home has been bombed, but no lives have been lost.

The cease-fire has brought hope to the people of Northern Ireland, Protestant and Catholic. The delicate task of strengthening it and moving toward a lasting peace will continue.

But in order for that progress to take place, all sides must be willing to give ground. Recently, Britain freed Pvt. Lee Clegg from prison after he had served only two years for the shooting death of a teenage Catholic girl driving through an army checkpoint in a stolen vehicle in Belfast in 1990.

In fairness, Britain should review the status of 900 prisoners it holds in Northern Ireland, at least to search for similar types of arguable sentences.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams must do his part, too. Attaching dates to the end of nationalist patience with the peace process should stop. Already, the first anniversary of the IRA cease-fire Sept. 1 has been talked about as a deadline for progress - or else. That can only be taken as a threat, no matter how it is intended.

The issue of the decommissioning of arms seems insoluble, with the British asking for weapons to be turned in before any serious talks begin and Sinn Fein insisting on talks before disarming. But Sinn Fein still could begin to talk about how and when arms might be turned in - and encourage the IRA to start with a small, symbolic gesture of disarmament.

The "marching" confrontations have been a reminder that progress toward peace is not set on autopilot. Neither side has "won" and can now settle for today's status quo. Redoubled humility and courage, with all eyes fixed on the high goal of a just and lasting peace, is needed on all sides right now.

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