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And Laying Aside the Gun

Considering how far they've come, the parties in Northern Ireland can certainly go a step farther and resolve the disarmament issue.

On one side of this question stands the Protestant unionist leader David Trimble, recent recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize along with Catholic political leader John Hume. Mr. Trimble wants immediate evidence that the Irish Republican Army will follow through on a commitment to give up stockpiles of arms and explosives. He refuses to allow the IRA's political arm, Sinn Fein, a seat on the executive Cabinet of the new Northern Ireland Assembly until arms decommissioning begins.

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On the other side stands Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, who also had a vital role in last spring's Good Friday peace agreement. He argues that disarmament will come, but not before the peace plan is fully implemented in the spring of 2000 - the formal deadline for turning over weapons. Meanwhile, he says, the IRA's cease-fire proves its commitment to peace.

There is a logical way out of the impasse. Sinn Fein and the IRA should start the process by giving up some initial token part of their vast hidden arsenal. With that step taken, some unionist reciprocity should follow. And the parties should then agree to a timetable for further disarmament, specifying steps and dates after the seating of Mr. Adams.

That would provide a firm check on IRA good faith and move the necessary work of the Northern Ireland Assembly forward toward the many tough issues of governance that need to be resolved. A disarmament commission, headed by Canadian John de Chastelain, is ready to oversee the process.

Protestant concerns about IRA firepower must be allayed. Catholic-republican attachment to the long "armed struggle" against British rule must be dropped. It's a new era.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, are joining forces to encourage the sides. US urging can help too. Most of all, people like Trimble and Adams have to demonstrate a continuing ability to bridge differences instead of barricade themselves behind them. Resolution of the disarmament problem will necessarily follow.

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