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N. Ireland's decisive move toward peace

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First they called a truce. Then they signed a peace deal. Disarmament came next, followed by a commitment to end the armed struggle for good.

Now, Northern Ireland's Catholic republicans have finally decided to endorse the province's police force – a move that unlocks the political process and reverses more than 80 years of resistance to British law.

"It is a major event," says Eddie McGrady, a moderate republican and member of Parliament for the centrist Social Democratic and Labour Party. "It is a hugely significant statement. For the first time in a century, the republican outlook has recognized the legitimacy of the security forces and policing both north and south of the border."

Sunday's vote in a special conference of Sinn Fein, the political vanguard of the Irish Republican Army, was passed by almost 90 percent of delegates. It commits the party to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the criminal-justice system. For so decisive a break with the past, there was relatively little dissent.

The move was a decisive step forward for a political process that aims to have Catholic republicans and their bitter rivals in the pro-British Protestant unionist camp running a government together in Belfast by the end of March.

Suspicious unionists had warned that they could not work with a party that did not accept the rule of law.

Monday, they admitted that Sinn Fein had gone some way to addressing their concern.

"We have made headway. I wouldn't deny that," said Ian Paisley, the hard-line Protestant leader who heads the Democratic Unionist Party. "If you had told me 20 years ago that they (republicans) would be repudiating the very fundamentals of Sinn Fein/IRA, I would have laughed, but that is what they have done."

As ever with the stop-start, on-off peace process, ifs and buts remain. The Sinn Fein vote says the leaders will commit to policing only once the new powersharing government is up and running. Mr. Paisley condemned this as a "post-dated check" that he said "is no good" until pay day.

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