Leading article: A confused and messy state

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Northern Ireland is not in the tumult it once was, but as the troubles subside its affairs are in a confused and messy state, with political progress elusive and terrorism transmuting into crime.

Although politics is moving glacially slowly, some paramilitary groups are currently evolving quite quickly. In the case of the IRA the authorities are encouraged by its general direction, though worried about its underground financial empire. Other republican and loyalist groups have been winding down their violence but concentrating on money-making activities.

It was always clear that the unwelcome corollary of dwindling political violence would be a rise in gangsterism, and this process is under way. Smuggling and financial crime is rife, with some in authority speaking in almost admiring terms of how speedily some criminal gangs can adapt to changing circumstances.

Activities similar to theirs go on in cities in Britain, but the additional Northern Ireland factor is that many of those involved have a paramilitary background. They are therefore more feared and more formidable. The IRA is a more complicated piece of work since its behaviour is key to prospects for political advance. Talks are to open in Belfast next week, and it is to be hoped will carry out valuable preparatory groundwork. But Ian Paisley, Unionism's kingpin, will not go into government with Sinn Fein until the IRA's game plan becomes clearer. He insists - and for once it is difficult to argue with him - that there should be no government until it is crystal clear that the era of IRA illegality is over. A Paisley-Sinn Fein coalition would clearly not be a marriage made in heaven but it is, for better or for worse, decreed by the relentless political arithmetic to be the only way of restoring devolution.

Republican activity has been dramatically wound down, but the key question is whether the IRA intends to go all the way or whether it hopes to maintain, as discreetly as it can, a certain amount of criminality. This week an official report into paramilitary activity acknowledged that huge strides have been made. Next week Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain will attempt to persuade Mr Paisley to ready himself for government. The hope is that the next report, due in April, will show that the IRA really is intent on putting itself on the right side of the law, thus paving the way for a genuine political breakthrough.

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