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St. Patrick's gloom

THE IRISH Republican Army, far from vanishing into history, is recreating itself from a paramilitary force into a brutal criminal gang. Sinn Fein, its political affiliate, should have no place at the White House this St. Patrick's Day.

Neither should the other Northern Ireland political parties. Excessive demands by the Democratic Unionists, the largest grouping in the North, have paralyzed the peace process. The White House reception, an annual event begun by Bill Clinton, should be reserved for a St. Patrick's Day when the 1998 Good Friday Agreement has truly been implemented. President Bush will announce his decision about a reception early next month.

The latest IRA atrocity occurred two weeks ago at a pub in downtown Belfast. Robert McCartney, a Catholic supporter of Sinn Fein, was having a drink with a friend when they got into an argument with a group of IRA thugs. They knifed him to death and nearly did the same to his companion.

Based on press reports, everyone familiar with the IRA chain of command knows the identity of the ringleader, but the IRA gang insured that no witnesses would be available to the police by threatening the 70 patrons in the pub. This was not an officially sanctioned operation, but the IRA, by not insisting that the culprits surrender themselves, is complicit in the coverup. The IRA needs to help bring these killers to justice.

The murder, coming so soon after the $50 million Northern Bank robbery in December, which was widely ascribed to the IRA, points up the need for Sinn Fein to end its symbiotic relationship with this armed gang. They are so closely entwined that the IRA will have to give up its arsenal and declare itself disbanded before doubters in Northern Ireland believe that Sinn Fein is committed to peace.

The IRA was on the verge of making a major disarmament move in December to restore the Northern Ireland government, in stasis because of unionist refusal to deal with Sinn Fein. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionists, quashed the initiative by demanding that photographs be taken of the event. Eyewitness accounts by a Catholic and a Protestant clergyman, a condition accepted by the IRA, would not have been enough. Voters in Northern Ireland should send a strong message of disapproval to both the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein during the next British parliamentary elections, widely expected to be called in May. Until then, the United States, Britain, and the Irish government should quietly prod Sinn Fein's leaders to tell the IRA that it must give up its weapons and stop breaking the law. A festive reception is out of place when all the IRA has on offer is crime and death. 

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