At this stage of the game, the parties in the Northern Ireland talks should be looking ahead to a relaxation of tensions and perhaps looking back to the words of Winston Churchill upon the Allied invasion of German-held North Africa in 1942: "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
What has already been achieved should not be underestimated. The Irish Republican Army on July 20 restored a cease-fire that has held until now--no small accomplishment. Mo Mowlan, Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, has declared the cease-fire genuine. And Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political arm, has vowed unequivocal commitment to a peaceful resolution in adherence with the Mitchell Principles, the framework for negotiations put forth in January 1996 by President Clinton's diplomatic broker, former Sen. George Mitchell of Maine.
Now the hard political work begins, with all-inclusive talks directed toward resolving issues that have made Northern Ireland a powder keg for more than a quarter-century. The sessions, scheduled to start Monday outside Belfast, will require the full participation of all parties. Some unionist parties have not yet committed to talk peace. David Trimble, as head of the largest, should accept the mantle of leadership and join the talks. That statesmanlike action could bring the smaller parties along.
High on the list of issues to be addressed is the decommissioning of arms by IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups, the men who have made a hell of the British province. The laying down of arms should take place in parallel with the political talks and should be intended to lead to a total and verifiable disarmament.
Even though the constitutional status of the province--whether it is to remain in British hands or reunite with the rest of Ireland--is on everybody's mind, that is not now an issue. And it shouldn't be. The talks should seek, as both the British and Irish governments have stated, to achieve "unity by consent." The time will come when the meaning of words like "unity" and "consent" will have to be clarified, but for now, with the structure so fragile, this approach seems sensible. Relax the tensions, don't rush headlong to the most delicate part of the problem.