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Giving Up the Gun

THE real news from Belfast earlier this month was something bigger than Bill Clinton's tumultuous welcome, deeper than his venture into presidential imagemaking, and clearly more consequential than his shrewd courtship of Irish-American voters.

It was the decision by Irish nationalists and the British authorities to form an international committee that will keep the peace process rolling by quietly scrapping - ''decommissioning'' - the Irish Republican Army's scattered caches of arms and explosives. American pressure apparently forced London to cease demanding a humiliating outright surrender of the weapons.

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That concession could help Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, outbid the hard men, the militants, in leading Northern Irish Catholics away from violence and toward Western models of peaceful change. The issue is still tense, however, with some IRA factions asserting they won't cooperate with the international committee.

No more guns! For the IRA to disarm would mean bidding farewell to the revolutionary tradition that has dominated the Irish imagination for nearly two centuries. All through the 19th century, and culminating in Easter of 1916, Irish radicals conspired, collected arms, and prepared for the great day. No other way offered itself. Every defeated rising brought glory and betrayal, heroes and villains, exiles and martyrs, all the romantic events that entered the Irish soul through ballads, literature, and history books, and which inspired generations as yet unborn to take up the gun or set the fuse.

Though the British could win individual battles, their lack of moral legitimacy meant ultimate defeat.

That failing hardly applies in the North, however, with its overwhelming Protestant majority. The hard men, the IRA's ''active service units,'' dismiss that fact, insisting that the present conflict simply continues the grand old revolutionary struggle.

Violence once struck a chord in the Irish psyche. Sean O'Casey gave us ''The Shadow of a Gunman,'' while John Ford filled ''The Informer'' with trench-coated gunfighters. The nationalist murals proclaiming ''You Are Now Entering Free Derry!'' depict masked figures lifting rifles to the heavens, while a wall slogan further ahead proclaims ''God Made us Catholics, the Armilite Made Us Free,'' alluding to the civilian version of the American M-16 rifle. ''The bayonets flash, and the rifles crash, to the echo of a Thompson gun,'' sang the men of 1919-22, glorying in the great execution promised by sub-machine guns newly smuggled in from America.

By battling this obsession with the gun, Mr. Adams has shown courage and wisdom in trying to bury the past and move on. So has Washington in backing him, despite London's warning that both British sovereignty and the ''special relationship'' were being threatened.

Ending violence, discarding the gun, means the departure of more British troops. It means amnesty for political prisoners and reordering the police and courts to ensure fair treatment, even for the most radical Catholics. In the broadest sense, it means modernity; intellectual and economic change; and a focus on the outside world, Europe in particular, rather than on Ireland's storied past. In at last allowing divorce, the Irish Republic has taken a giant step in that direction.

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The excellent Irish educational system produces young graduates who look to Europe and to prosperity, not to nationalist slogans that lead - as in Bosnia - to broken hearts and bodies. The future belongs to them, not to the men in black berets and leather jackets.

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