One sticking point — if not the key obstacle — in the Northern Ireland peace process has been the question of when the Irish Republican Army would give up its arms. A fair amount of fudge has been allowed to obscure this issue. That is understandable. After all, no arms would be surrendered until trust had been established, yet without an agreement, the trust-building process would never begin. As a result, a certain level of ambiguity was tolerated, if not required. Hard choices are going to have to be made, and perhaps soon. But there is growing concern that not enough time has passed and that the decommissioning issue could wreck the Good Friday peace accord.

Since the agreement was signed April 10, 1998, considerable progress has been made. Last week, Northern Ireland’s national assembly voted to establish a power-sharing executive. The new Cabinet will consist of 10 ministries and six cross-border groups to coordinate and implement policy with the Irish Republic. The vote opens the way for the British minister for Northern Ireland, Ms. Mo Mowlam, to approve the establishment of the decision-making body.

The deadline for creating the executive — and passing power from London to Belfast — is March 10, but there are strong indications that it will not be met. The sticking point is when the Republicans will give up their arms. Compounding the problem is the rash of violent attacks that have occurred in recent weeks. Members of both Protestant and Catholic paramilitaries have shown a fondness for “punishment beatings,” which in less charged places is called vigilante justice.

Protestants have complained that attacks by the IRA are violations of the ceasefire and disqualify Sinn Fein, the party that represents the Catholics, from a seat in the new government. It is a reasonable, if opportunistic, claim but it will unravel the peace process. It is also undermined by the past: During an earlier IRA ceasefire, beatings continued but were not considered a violation.

Mr. David Trimble, Northern Ireland’s first minister designate and leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, which is Protestant and pro-British, walks a fine line. He ushered the legislation through the national assembly last week, even though his party was split evenly down the middle: 29 for the bill, 29 against. Many of those who voted against the measure oppose the Good Friday process.

If Mr. Trimble is on shaky ground with his party, the public is still behind him. Unfortunately, that support will quickly evaporate if a real peace is not delivered. That means he has to tackle the problem of violence, which his foes have linked to the decommissioning of guns. In response, Mr. Trimble has lashed out at Sinn Fein. He insists that the party cannot take the two seats in the Cabinet to which it is entitled until the IRA hands in its guns.

It is a weak claim. There is nothing in the accord that strictly binds Sinn Fein to hand in the weapons. The Good Friday agreement was drawn up after long negotiations, and the vagueness on the decommissioning question was deliberate. The agreement only obliges both sides to work “constructively and in good faith” to accomplish the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons by May 2000. The clock is still ticking.

There is little doubt that the IRA has been dragging its feet. Distrust and old habits die slowly. The Protestants still dominate the police in Northern Ireland and the IRA has no one it can completely rely on for protection besides its own members. Trust is the nub.

There must be some signs of progress if the peace process is not to collapse in cynicism. The parties must be seen as respecting the essence of the agreement, if not its particulars. That is why British Prime Minister Tony Blair last week urged Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to push for disarming the militias. That is why the Unionists and the Republicans must continue talking, no matter how frustrating the experience.

A compromise is needed; a symbolic gesture by the IRA would help. Since many IRA prisoners have been released from prison already under the terms of the agreement, it does not seem unreasonable to ask for something in return. Given the difficulty of monitoring any disarming, such a symbolic gesture may be all that the Protestants can ask for. In such ways, trust may finally become the coin of the realm in Ulster.

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