Though more than a year has passed since politicians in Northern Ireland signed the historic Good Friday peace accord, the document has remained a dead letter due to a dispute over the disarmament of the Irish Republican Army. Now the agreement is unraveling, posing a real danger that dialogue will once again be replaced by bullets and bombs.

Back in April 1998, it appeared that six years of arduous negotiations to end the bloody violence in Northern Ireland had been brought to a successful conclusion. Not only had the power-sharing agreement been approved by all the major political players, it also had won the backing of a majority of the province’s Protestant and Catholic populations in both a referendum and in subsequent elections for the local assembly in Belfast.

Unfortunately, implementation of the agreement has stumbled over a provision in the accord that calls for the disarmament of paramilitaries on both sides of the religious divide. Although vaguely calling for the decommissioning of weapons to be completed by next spring — well after the power-sharing government is to be established — the accord fails to specify just how and when this is to be accomplished. It is in this vagueness that the current troubles lie.

Wielding the slogan “no guns, no government,” Northern Ireland’s largest Protestant party, the Ulster Unionist Party, has refused to sit in government with the Irish Republican Army’s political wing Sinn Fein until the guerrilla group begins to hand over its weapons. Northern Ireland First Minister and Unionist leader David Trimble has even declined to name his deputy premier and Cabinet until this condition is met. Rebuffing Mr. Trimble, the Irish Republican Army and Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams hold that decommissioning is an obligation rather than a precondition, and are adamant that disarmament cannot precede devolution. To do otherwise, they say, would be tantamount to a surrender and would risk Republican participation in the future governance of the province.

A key role for the next few critical days will be played byCanada’s Gen. John de Chastelain, the head of Northern Ireland’s disarmament commission. Mr. de Chastelain has sent a questionnaire to all parties asking whether they agree to a decommissioning of all weapons by May 22, 2000, and if they can determine the willingness of affiliated paramilitary groups to comply with this deadline. In addition, he is asking participants to indicate their views on the order of weapons handovers as well as the time frame and location for the decommissioning. It is Mr. de Chastelain’s hope that an agreement can be facilitated by putting pressure on all parties involved to make their positions known and establishing grounds for compromise. The results will be passed Tuesday to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Mr. Bertie Ahern.

Mr. Blair and Mr. Ahern will step up the pressure on Protestants and Catholics alike to resolve the political impasse when they fly to Belfast Monday. Scrambling to save the peace process, last Friday British Prime Minister Tony Blair unveiled his latest proposal to end the disarmament deadlock. Mr. Blair’s plan calls for both sides to make significant compromises. Pro-British Protestant leaders would have to allow Sinn Fein to participate in a power-sharing executive. In exchange, all paramilitary groups, including the Irish Republican Army — which seeks Irish unification to end British rule — would have to agree to decommission their weapons by next May. Mr. Adams would be also be obligated to state publicly that the IRA is obliged to give up its weapons under the accord, something he has thus far refused to do. If the IRA fails to disarm by this date, Sinn Fein would be ousted from the government.

Mr. Blair’s proposal is reasonable and stays true to the spirit of the Good Friday agreement. To resolve the dispute by the June 30 deadline the prime minister has set, both sides must display goodwill and trust in the intentions of the other side. The Unionists must have confidence that the Republicans are serious about ending violence, and for their part, the Republicans must believe that the Unionists’ intention to share power is genuine. This is a tall order, but when the alternative is considered, making the right choice should become easier. Opponents of the peace agreement would do well to keep in mind that, as Mr. Blair has pointed out, “If the Good Friday agreement collapses, the result is not a better peace, it is no peace at all.”

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