Leading article: Now the going gets really tough

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AFTER DECADES of immobilism, Northern Irish politics are moving at a pace and in a direction that few could ever have thought possible. The momentum of the peace process has now received a massive boost from the resounding "Yes" vote across Ireland. Many tributes have been paid to David Trimble, John Hume and Tony Blair over the last few days and these are richly deserved. But it has to be admitted that part of the reason why they have made such rapid progress is that some of the most difficult issues have been left to one side for the sake of gaining agreement and moving forwards. This was entirely right. But these questions, by definition the most sensitive and intractable, will now have to be resolved.

The sometimes subdued atmosphere in Ulster this weekend indicates that the people there know that the hardest work and most difficult compromises are still to come. They know that the vote itself did not dissolve sectarianism overnight and end violence. They know, for example, that terrorist prisoners will have to be released, possibly at a faster rate than previously envisaged. Even as they watched the Balcombe Street gang being given a heroic welcome and absurdly compared with Nelson Mandela by Sinn Fein, or the Milltown Cemetery murderer Michael Stone celebrating his temporary freedom, they must have feared that there would be more, much more, of this to endure. The best that can be hoped for is that those concerned see the help that these displays gave to the "No" campaign and ask themselves what such insensitivity to the feelings of the victims of terror will achieve. Nor is this the only source of triumphalism.

Experience also suggests that the traditional Orange parades and in particular the one due to take place soon on the Garvaghy Road, also have the capacity to reopen old wounds. After all, the report of the Parades Commission on these forthcoming marches was delayed because of the fear that the controversy would derail the peace process. Now that the time for decision - and compromise - has come it is incumbent on all those involved to respect the decision of the Parades Commission and to display the kind of sensitivity that the moment demands, even if they find it unreciprocated.

But the biggest obstacle to rooting the gun out of Northern Irish politics remains the refusal of the IRA to begin decommissioning its arms. The Prime Minister's pledge, that "those who use or threaten violence" should be excluded from the government of Northern Ireland, is clear. A great deal of faith has been placed in this, especially by Unionists. It applies to all. A real obligation falls on loyalist and republican terrorists and their political allies. In particular, Sinn Fein must make clear that the war is over and that they have a commitment to exclusively peaceful means. The best way to do this would be for the IRA to actually start decommissioning.

Now, of course, Sinn Fein are trying to dodge this. They say that they will try to persuade the IRA about this, they'll talk to their friends, they'll do their best. In the meantime, though, they want to be treated like any other political party, implying a role in the government of Northern Ireland. But this is simply not on. The only argument for doing so derives from black comedy, that the IRA wouldn't mortar bomb a meeting of the Northern Ireland Executive with Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness sitting in it. Probably. But what if the Sinn Fein ministers find that they don't like what is going on in cabinet? If and when Adams and McGuinness walk out of the peace process, do the gunmen walk straight in? The threat of violence will be there and, even if Tony Blair broke his promise, the idea that Unionists could happily work alongside Sinn Fein is simply not practical politics.

If the momentum and pace is to be kept up then the hard, exhausting work is not over yet. But the prize of a new politics for Ireland - with Sinn Fein welcome and legitimate participants - is now closer then ever, and continues to make it worthwhile.