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The substantial moves made by the Irish Republican Army to put its weaponry "beyond use" could save the faltering peace process in Northern Ireland. The IRA's disarmament decision is late, but especially welcome during the current world crisis.

Unexpectedly strong statements by Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams and his party's representative in New York, Martin McGuiness, early this week signaled that IRA leaders had decided to decommission weapons, a move first promised early last year. Delays repeatedly have threatened a fragile coalition government that includes both Sinn Fein and the major "unionist" Protestant organizations, and Great Britain set a home-rule deadline following the protest resignations of key Protestant ministers last week.

Sinn Fein, the IRA's political ally, urged the Catholic militant organization to "make a groundbreaking move on the arms issue," perhaps by cementing over the secret arms caches it has allowed international monitors to inspect. The IRA then announced it would implement a previously negotiated decomissioning process. That sequence - a Sinn Fein entreaty followed by an IRA response - was the pattern used in 1997 to reach a cease-fire that was followed a year later by the still-shaky peace settlement.

Disarmament now becomes an IRA initiative, done on its terms instead of accomplished as a response to the Ulster government or to Britain. An international commission has verified the start of the process and Ulster unionists have indicated they will return to the joint power-sharing government, staving off the return to direct rule from Britain.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have played a role in the shift. The IRA, which relies heavily on Irish-American support, undoubtedly feels pressure to distance itself from terrorism. The organization is known to have received boatloads of arms and Semtex plastic explosives from Libya in the 1980s, and just this summer three IRA members were arrested in Colombia on charges of training Marxist radicals in urban terrorism. Disarmament could be seen as a disavowal of terrorism.

Still, the shift in policy is real, and welcome. Adams' statement in West Belfast dropped the strong linkage to other moves long demanded by the republicans - reduction of the British military presence in Northern Ireland and reform of the police force to include more Catholics. By breaking the "who-goes-first" logjam, the IRA contributes significantly to the peace process - and other parties now can contribute in turn.

The danger is that the decision by the IRA's seven-member Army Council will cause even more disaffected hard-line republicans to join breakaway militant groups such as the "Real IRA." Such groups could unleash more of the terror and warfare that has claimed some 3,600 lives in the past three decades - and risk alienating Americans who have just lost some 5,000 lives to terrorism in a single day.

Sinn Fein, the IRA and their supporters will continue to push for reunion of the northern counties to Ireland, and the unionists will continue to demand that Ulster remain united to Great Britain. But that debate should be centered in the halls of government, not embodied in the violence of the streets. The world, already encouraged this autumn by the unilateral disarmament of rebel forces as part of a negotiated peace in Macedonia, should have far less patience now with militants who want to maintain the capacity for terror-producing bombings and urban bloodshed.

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