'TAKING THE gun out of Irish politics" -- a longstanding hope in Northern Ireland -- almost certainly was achieved this week. The Irish Republican Army's political party, Sinn Fein, and its adversaries in the unionist movement need to take steps specified in the Good Friday agreement to strengthen the political structures that offer nonviolent solutions to the sectarian division of the North.
The IRA arsenal, whose elimination was announced this week, had its origins in the violence of the late 1960s, when Catholics rightly believed that they could not rely on the Protestant-dominated police force. Over the decades, the IRA has become the enforcer of order in working-class Catholic neighborhoods. The new nonsectarian Police Service of Northern Ireland, formed four years ago, has had trouble gaining trust.
The Police Service demonstrated its even-handedness this month when it battled Protestant rioters in West Belfast. Sinn Fein would bolster the police, and show its commitment to the political process, if it joined the oversight boards that are intended to provide legitimacy for the police in all segments of Northern Irish society.
Had the IRA eliminated its arsenal three or four years ago, the overwhelmingly Protestant Ulster Unionist Party would probably still be the leading political organization in Northern Ireland. In 2003, this party was supplanted by the Democratic Unionists, led by Ian Paisley, enemy of Sinn Fein and Irish nationalism in general.
Paisley worried this week that there weren't enough guarantees that the IRA had given up its weapons. There might be an odd rifle or handgun unaccounted for, but the independent committee that oversees disarmament, assisted by a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister, is satisfied that the IRA has rendered inactive its major weapons, including ground-to-air missiles and a flamethrower. The key issue is not whether a few weapons are unaccounted for but whether the IRA has any intention of using them.
The International Monitoring Commission, another independent panel, is watching the IRA to determine whether it has stopped its vigilante and criminal activities, such as the Northern Bank robbery last year. Assuming that the IRA has ended all its violence, fulfilling an essential objective of the Good Friday agreement, Paisley's party has no reason to avoid forming a government with Sinn Fein.
Protestant paramilitary forces need to give up their guns as well, but their crimes are more the stuff of gangsterism than orchestrated political violence. Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have shown great skill in weaning their old IRA comrades from violence. Now they and the other party leaders need to create an effective political system atop the mountain of weapons rendered harmless in the IRA arms dumps.