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Stay the Course in N. Ireland

October 10, 2002

Peaceful power-sharing in Northern Ireland took a hard hit last week when Belfast police accused members of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political wing, of possessing documents allegedly stolen from the British government. The leader of the Ulster Unionist Party has demanded that British Prime Minister Tony Blair throw Sinn Fein out of the Northern Ireland Assembly, created in 1998 when Catholics and Protestants put together their landmark Good Friday agreement.

Before the peace that agreement helped to bolster completely unravels, everyone involved in this seemingly endless conflict should take a deep breath and ask: Is Northern Ireland better off now than when there was routine slaughter on the streets? The answer is yes. Indeed, since the cease-fire was reinstated in July 1997, the IRA's guns and bombs have remained silent.

People may wonder why the paramilitary IRA continues to exist when politics have made so much progress. The unionists are essentially right in responding that it shouldn't. But at least the IRA has begun to comply with the peace agreement, twice submitting to a disarmament process. By the same token, paramilitary groups on the other side cannot claim a clean slate. As the British secretary for Northern Ireland has noted, "the majority of the killings and riots have been the work not of the republicans but of loyalists."

Despite the problems on both sides, self-rule through the power-sharing assembly has created peace, and that has energized the economy and made life better for the average citizen, Catholic or Protestant. The collapse of the assembly would only create a political vacuum. Those who advocate mistrust, violence and hate would no doubt step in.

Ulster's police chief has apologized for the way the raid against Sinn Fein was conducted, but the charges remain alarming. If Sinn Fein officials were indeed spying for the IRA, gathering information that terrorists could use, the punishment must be harsh. But the charges have yet to be proved in a courtroom, and Sinn Fein is entitled to due process. And while Sinn Fein does its explaining--and it has plenty of explaining to do--the assembly should keep working and the peace process should continue.

Cynical hard-liners on either side rejoice at the damage the Sinn Fein bust has done to the Good Friday agreement. Which makes it all the more urgent for moderates and those ambivalent Northern Irish the British press calls "waverers" to come out unequivocally in support of staying the course for peace.

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