A NORTHERN IRISH PEACE?

A NORTHERN IRISH PEACE?

The air is thick with plaudits for the progress that has been made toward peace in Northern Ireland - and they're deserved. But neither onlookers nor international businesses should lose themselves in admiring what's been done. The job isn't finished. It faces a crucial test, and plenty of opportunity to self-destruct, in the next several days.

Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell wrapped up 11 weeks of painstaking mediation last week with an accord that, if followed, will put into place the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. It called for power-sharing between the majority Protestants, who have ruled the province since their Anglo-Saxon ancestors took over 300 years ago, and the Catholic descendants of the displaced Celtic natives.The accord is crucial not only to peace, but also to revitalization of Northern Ireland, where the economy has been flagging.

Almost as soon as it was reached, however, the agreement was body-blocked. It called for guerrilla forces on both sides to disarm by May 2000. But Protestants then insisted the underground Irish Republican Army begin disarming before power- sharing began. The IRA looked on that as surrender.

Mitchell, who brokered the Good Friday accord, reentered the picture when the impasse looked hopeless. Unprecedented trust built gradually. Ultimately Protestant leader David Trimble said he would accept a statement by the IRA supporting disarmament. The IRA issued such a statement and pledged to appoint a disarmament negotiator when a Protestant-Catholic government is named.

A new government could be in place in weeks. All that remains is for Trimble's party, the Ulster Unionists, to endorse the deal - and for Sinn Fein, the controversial Catholic party with close ties to the IRA, to avoid giving the Ulster Unionists an excuse not to. There are fears on both fronts.

There is a truculent streak in Protestant politics that combines fear, anti-Catholic bigotry and grievances at terrorism. The only change some Protestants want is a reversion to the past, where their political, economic and social power was complete and unchallenged. The question is whether they can look ahead far enough to see the benefits of this agreement - and the chaos that rejecting it would generate.

For their part, many Catholics have deeply held grievances against the Protestants. And they don't want to look weak. Two Sinn Fein politicians talked tough over the weekend, making remarks that called into question the IRA's commitment to disarm. It sounded like an invitation to the Protestants to torpedo the deal.

Even if a Protestant-Catholic government takes office, the going won't be easy. But at least it would be an equitable start. The world will watch now to see whether both sides want to make that equitable start.