Leading article: A settlement comes closer

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There is turmoil and violence in so much of the world, with trouble deepening in so many regions, that it is almost refreshing to turn to Northern Ireland and the latest report by the Independent Monitoring Commission, which provides evidence that the IRA is disappearing.

Belfast, once a doleful international metaphor for unending war, has now put most of its violence behind it. It stands as welcome proof that even the most intractable of conflicts can in time lose their fire and their deadly heat.

The Commission's report lays out, in convincing detail, how the IRA is currently deploying the same determination and energy it used to devote to killing to the task of consigning itself to history.

Few will mourn its departure: it claimed almost 1,800 lives, and although it was not the only source of violence, it should have called off its campaign years earlier than it did.

The authorities - British, Irish and American - are entirely convinced that it is in the business of fulfilling its promise to pursue a peaceful path, relying no longer on the guns of the IRA but on the influence of Sinn Fein.

The republicans still have to commit themselves on the issue of policing, but all the signals from Sinn Fein are that they are prepared to do so as part of an overall settlement. Yesterday's report brings the prospect of such a settlement closer.

The main stumbling-block to a power- sharing deal has been the - quite understandable - unionist fear of making a deal with Sinn Fein while a private republican army continued to lurk in the shadows.

The call on whether there is to be powersharing or not will be made by the ageing but still formidable figure of the Rev Ian Paisley, whose Democratic Unionist Party dominates Protestant politics.

On his more combative days he says he will do no deal; but then sometimes he and other DUP voices appear to hint that he might. Unsure of his intentions, London and Dublin have for months been putting him under as much pressure as they can.

They have set up talks for next week at St Andrews in Scotland, leading up to what they insist will be an absolute negotiating deadline of 24 November. After that, he is being sternly told, political salaries will stop and any prospect of devolution will disappear for years.

Mr Paisley is a hard man to pressurise, with a remarkable ability to disregard what the rest of the world thinks of him. Maybe he will go for it, maybe not. But the timetable of the weeks to come has rightly been designed to put him to the test.

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