Not the least dismaying aspect of the most recent crisis in Northern Ireland has been the stampeding of public opinion here in the United States into denunciation of the IRA, and into sympathy to the political maneuvers of the British government and of the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble. Naturally enough, this sudden tilt is being viewed with profound satisfaction by the British, not to mention the Ulster Unionists, who have chafed for years at the admirable refusal of the Clinton administration to take dictation from the British Embassy in Washington.

Tens of thousands of high-flown words have now been devoted to the IRA's supposed flouting of the 1998 Good Friday agreement, the IRA's lack of good faith, and Sinn Fein's duplicity. Yet, as Britain's Secretary for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson, finally admitted at the end of last week as he returned the province to direct rule, suspending its 10-week-old coalition government, the IRA is not in breach of that agreement, which stated that decommissioning of IRA weapons should occur "in the context of the implementation of the overall settlement." This was what the IRA said once more last Friday, and its leaders may be forgiven for feeling somewhat baffled when they got some grudging praise over the weekend for merely reiterating what they agreed to nearly two years ago.

As a practical matter, the IRA could only have agreed to disarmament if such a process were mutual, part of the above-mentioned "overall settlement." Though, in fact, there has been distinct lack of such mutuality, the IRA has indeed honored its commitment to peace, ensuring the longest period of tranquility in Northern Ireland.

Despite this tranquility, the capacity for organized violence remains overwhelmingly with the Unionists and with the British. Just visit south Armagh, where IRA units are being asked to turn in their weapons. British forts dot the hillsides. British patrols still deploy. British helicopters fill the sky. The Royal Ulster Constabulary is still a standing, unreformed force with an awful history still vivid in Catholic minds. There has been abundant testimony that RUC officers were implicated in assassinations and bombings of Catholics, and in conspiracies with other Protestant terror groups. Last week, Ulster Unionists were insisting that the RUC never be disbanded and its name survive.

On one well-informed count last year, there were about 130,000 legal guns in the north, 90 percent of them in the hands of RUC and the British army. What army with the function of guaranteeing the safety of Catholic communities in the north -- which is what the IRA deems itself to be -- could blithely lay down its arms amid these conditions? More precisely, what IRA commander could order such a course without facing the likelihood of mutinous dissent? In the view of many Republicans, only a beaten army unilaterally lays down its guns, and only an antagonist acting in bad faith would try to force the decommissioning issue at this time. There is no reason to believe that when Trimble accepted his slice of the Nobel peace prize, he traded in his instincts and outlook as a Unionist, leader of a party adamantly opposed to power-sharing or anything other than absolute Protestant dominance. The truth is that history dragged Trimble to the negotiating table, and forced him to accept the coalition cabinet with its two Sinn Fein members.

After as short a time as 10 peaceful weeks Trimble found this situation intolerable. His sudden confection of a previously non-existent decommissioning "deadline" overstepped by the IRA was a maneuver to destroy the coalition, and in this tactic, he was backed by Mandelson and Blair, who lost all room for maneuver by making it known that they were entirely in Trimble's corner. Worse still, Mandelson chose to suspend the new coalition government in Northern Ireland, and restore direct rule, even though he was well aware that Gen. John de Chastelain, the former Canadian officer heading the international disarmament body, was about to report that he was confident of the IRA's good faith. There are some signs that the British realized they had overreacted on Trimble's behalf. Some vague noises were duly made about the possible withdrawal of some British forces. When the British did finally suspend the new power-sharing institutions at the end of last week, they began to downplay the significance of the whole affair, insisting that suspension was not necessarily an epochal event.

If the British government wanted to settle the decommissioning issue once and for all, it would propose that the RUC be abolished in favor of a recomposed police force that would be evenly divided between Catholics and Protestants. Fifty percent of such a force could include decommissioned IRA volunteers. That's actual reconciliation, beyond the level of high-flown speeches at Nobel prize-givings. The announcement of such a force would then be the green light for the IRA to decommission on a grand scale. Exactly this process happened in several decolonizations -- India, Kenya, Zimbabwe -- pushed through by Britain. Today, members of the ANC's armed wing have been recruited into the South African army in large numbers.

One can understand the British dilemma. Blair and Mandelson no doubt feel that if Trimble goes, there'll be no Unionist they can deal with. So, once again, Trimble holds the old, ever-familiar Ulster veto. There's no reason why the United States should be suckered into playing along with this veto, too.

To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.