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SHOOTING PEACE IN THE FOOT

Unionist leader David Trimble put his neck on the line last month when he formed Northern Ireland's new coalition government despite opposition within his own camp. Sawing that neck off would hardly constitute a gesture of peace.

Yet that's what the intransigent Irish Republican Army might do unless it makes at least a symbolic show of disarming before Trimble's Ulster Unionist party gathers Feb. 12 to decide whether to stay in the new government.

Its decision won't be made any easier when a report due by Monday from the disarmament commission headed by Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain shows the IRA hasn't turned in or destroyed even a single bullet. Barring some last-minute change of heart by the IRA and its Sinn Fein political front -- or an incredible effort to fudge things by Chastelain -- the report will throw the entire peace process back into turmoil.

When Trimble courageously broke a stalemate last month by agreeing to form the new government -- which includes two Sinn Fein representatives -- he did so without concrete proof that IRA disarmament had begun. But he made clear he expected it to happen by February and that he would quit the government if it didn't.

That dispute over which had to come first -- power sharing or disarmament -- had bedeviled the talks until Trimble boldly broke the stalemate.

His gamble for peace means the onus was -- and still is -- on the IRA to reciprocate. If it doesn't, the new coalition government might have to be at least temporarily shelved, and control returned to Britain. That prospect alone should be enough to slap the IRA back to reality after it has fought so long to get the British out.

And if that doesn't do it, the fact that Trimble might lose control of his own party to hard-liners just waiting to say "I told you so" should give the IRA pause. That would make progress much more difficult to achieve.

Sinn Fein leaders insist the historic Good Friday accord, which the parties are operating under, gives the IRA until May to completely disarm. But while technically true, repeating that like a mantra will do nothing to advance the peace effort.

In terms of symbolism -- which is monumentally important here -- it is the IRA's turn to take the next big step. In terms of practicalities, it is hard to see how it can possibly live up to the May deadline if it doesn't at least start the process now.

For both reasons, if the IRA won't start disarming now, it's fair to ask how committed it really is to peace.

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