Another start in Ulster

Power sharing: Long-delayed regime overcomes distrust with great promise, no guarantee.

November 30, 1999

NORTHERN Ireland's new Cabinet is a tribute to former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell's tact and patience as moderator of the talks that brought it about.

Now they are on their own.

The new regime resembles an attempt that got off the ground in 1974 only to crash under withering opposition from the distrusting Protestant community.

A young Ulster Unionist politician who helped shoot it down, David Trimble, leads this experiment as first minister. Seamus Mallon, of the Social Democratic and Labor party in the Catholic community, is deputy minister.

Two of the 10 remaining ministers come from Sinn Fein, the political partner of the "military" IRA. One of them is Martin McGuinness, long known as a member of the IRA's ruling council and onetime chief of staff.

Most of the population wants this partnership to succeed in an environment of freedom, peace and economic development.

That "most" consists of almost all the 40 percent of the population that is Catholic and Irish, and barely half the 60 percent that is Protestant and British.

So more Protestant opinion needs to be won over. This explains Mr. Trimble's intransigence in demanding an IRA start to destroying weapons first. Having abandoned that, Mr. Trimble needs vindication to consolidate his leadership.

The IRA is clearly divided over the commitment made in its name. The Good Friday accord calls for "decommissioning" to be complete by May. Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain heads the international group that will monitor compliance.

The IRA has always been able to manipulate the unionist community into paranoid intransigence and could do so again with new acts of terror.

Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein-IRA leader, is probably sincere in steering away from violence. His control of the movement is less sure than a decade ago. Many unionists doubt his sincerity.

So hold the cheers. A breakthrough of magnificent promise is made, but it requires fulfillment.

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