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Northern Ireland's Vote

The Northern Ireland vote to elect representatives to all-party peace talks after June 10 has shifted the ground under hardened positions more than anyone foresaw.

The big surprise was the strength of the vote for Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. It got a record 15.5 percent, up more than 3 percent from its 1993 level. In west Belfast, it even beat out the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party. If allowed to participate in the peace forum, it will have 17 of the 110 seats at the table.

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The question now is whether Sinn Fein and the IRA can maneuver their way to the peace table without a new IRA cease-fire, or whether the British and Irish governments will hold to their positions that without a cease-fire, Sinn Fein will not get in the door.

British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Sir Patrick Mahew has continued to add nuance to the British position, declaring that the IRA need not lay down ("decommission") its arms before the talks begin, but adding that the arms will have to be decommissioned "sooner rather than later" once negotiations start. A unionist leader, David Trimble, also moved a bit: He agreed to begin the talks and defer an accord on arms until the fall.

A breakthrough in Northern Ireland will require two compromises:

The IRA must declare a cease-fire so that Sinn Fein can attend the peace forum. Even if the British were to give in on this point, it is doubtful that the unionists would go along. And they have the ability to bring down Prime Minister John Major's government, which has only a one-vote majority in Parliament. The unionist paramilitaries, who can be as murderous as the IRA, have maintained their cease-fire. The IRA has nothing to lose and everything to gain by taking the same course.

The unionists must accept that the status quo is no longer viable. That does not mean unification with the Irish Republic, which could happen only if a majority of voters in Northern Ireland desire it. They don't. But Catholic Irish nationalists must be allowed to participate fully in the political, economic, and social life of the province. That means, at the least, an end to the suspended governmental system in which unionist Protestants ran the show and excluded Catholics.

Peace is within reach. What's needed now is the courage to try.

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