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There are very good reasons to be deeply concerned about the Northern Ireland peace process. The first reason is that it looks to be breaking down. Disputes over the decommissioning of weapons by the Irish Republican Army and the seating of Sinn Fein representatives on the executive council established by the Good Friday accord have deadlocked. The clock continues to tick, but no progress is being made toward implementation. The second reason is even more worrisome: The peace process is losing its meaning. Violence continues, yet no one wants to say the word “violation.” The fear of a breakdown is understandable, but the result is that Ireland may have a peace process and no peace.

The Good Friday accord was always vague about key provisions. The critical issue of the IRA decommissioning its weapons — giving up its guns — was officially put off until May 22, 2000. But there has been pressure on the IRA to make a gesture, especially since it has been the chief beneficiary of the provision that calls for the release of political prisoners. The stakes were upped this week when an extremist unionist militia in Northern Ireland said that it would soon turn over some of its arsenal to the authorities. The move is designed to increase pressure on the IRA, but any move that takes weapons off the streets is to be welcomed.

Sinn Fein officials say that they favor disarmament in principle, but even a gesture is beyond their means. Moreover, they claim that their electoral strength in the last election gives them a right to seats in the new Cabinet, regardless of the weapons issue. That feeds suspicions that the IRA is stalling, using the peace process as a cover while it rearms. That fear has been stoked by the discovery that the IRA has been involved in gun-smuggling. The group’s council did not deny the accusation, stating only that the smuggling was not authorized.

Despite that fact, and the acknowledged “involvement” of the IRA in the murder of an alleged police informant, Ms. Mo Mowlam, the secretary for Northern Ireland in the British Cabinet, last week decided that the two-year-old ceasefire was still in place. Ms. Mowlam conceded that she had come “very close” to declaring that the ceasefire had been violated, but opted instead for the status quo.

The secretary walks on dangerous ground. The distinction she has drawn between organized violence and the more ordinary sort makes sense politically. Ms. Mowlam admitted that political considerations had influenced her decision. But there is the risk that it gives the paramilitaries too much control over the peace process. They can now define the meaning of ceasefire. It encourages atomization and decentralized decision-making — to ensure “deniability” — when a real peace requires central and coordinated control over the “hard men.”

Only hours after the secretary’s decision, the IRA threatened four teenage boys with death if they did not leave the province. Their crime? Picking a fight with members of a Catholic gang. This is no isolated incident: By one reckoning, the IRA has issued over 400 expulsion orders since the Good Friday peace accord; Protestant loyalists have made 380 in the same period. It takes a considerable stretch of the imagination to call this peace, or even a ceasefire.

The real test comes next week. On Sept. 6, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, the mediator who helped produce the Good Friday accord, convenes a review of the peace process. All the parties are expected to attend, even though the unionists have called for a boycott unless the IRA makes some concessions. The boycott is unlikely, since the unionists do not wish to be seen as an obstacle to peace.

Pressures will mount. A few days later, Mr. Chris Patten, the former governor of Hong Kong appointed to oversee a study of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, will publish his results. Leaks concerning the recommendations have raised hackles among loyalists, who see the police force being made a scapegoat. Reportedly, the force will change its name, badge and uniform. The reforms are symbolic, but symbols are loaded in Northern Ireland.

Ms. Mowlam has decided that “an imperfect peace” is better than none. The problem is that those imperfections will grow until the two become indistinguishable. If there is an encouraging sign in the recent cascade of bad news, it is the report that Sinn Fein and the loyalists have been conducting secret meetings to prepare for the review next week. Those sessions are one of the fruits of the “imperfect peace.” If they create the basis for a real peace — and build enough trust to allow the decommissioning process to go forward — then Ms. Mowlam’s decision will be vindicated.

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