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Are its Troubles over?

Sinn Fein's pledge to work with a new Northern Irish police force makes the once unthinkable possible in Belfast.

January 30, 2007

IN A ONCE-UNTHINKABLE concession, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army voted Sunday to recognize the authority of the new Police Service of Northern Ireland. Meeting in Dublin, Sinn Fein pledged cooperation with the new force only days after revelations that the province's previous police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, coddled Protestant killers as recently as the 1990s. The juxtaposition of the two events suggests that what was once regarded as an intractable political problem is on its way to a solution.

According to a report last week by Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan, the RUC's Special Branch protected informants from the Ulster Volunteer Force, an illegal Protestant paramilitary group, even though they were involved in 10 killings and other acts of violence. Coziness between the police and underworld informants isn't unique to Northern Ireland, but the ties between the RUC and Protestant paramilitaries confirmed what Catholics long had argued: that law and order in the province was skewed in favor of Protestants.

But, as Sinn Fein has recognized, that was then and this is now. More than a name differentiates the new police service from the RUC. As might be expected in a force with "royal" in its title, the RUC was composed largely of pro-British Protestants. The new force, whose membership is almost a quarter Catholic (a proportion that is expected to grow as a result of aggressive recruiting), has been reconstituted and reformed as part of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

Sunday's vote, urged by Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, was a prerequisite for reestablishing a coalition government in Belfast in which Unionists -- pro-British Protestants -- will share power with Republicans -- Catholics who want a united Ireland. It's hard to imagine stranger bedfellows: the Democratic Unionist Party, which regards Northern Ireland as eternally British, and Sinn Fein, which still seeks a "democratic socialist republic" that will rule the entire island.

The genius of the Good Friday agreement, supported by Britain and the predominantly Catholic Republic of Ireland, is that it finessed the issue of whether Northern Ireland is British or Irish. As part of the agreement, the Republic of Ireland renounced its claim to govern the north, while Britain disavowed any "selfish interest" in ruling the province past the point at which a majority of its inhabitants have decided to sever the connection with the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, Britain and Ireland will make sure that their constituents in the north cooperate.

It's a delicate compromise, but infinitely preferable to "the Troubles" that cost 3,000 lives. But if it is to survive, those who police the north must be -- and be seen as -- evenhanded.

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