Sinn Fein leaders debated behind closed doors Friday whether their once-revolutionary party should support the Northern Ireland police force, a fundamental step in peacemaking.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams told his Irish Republican Army-linked party the time was right for the move, which could pave the way for a revived Catholic-Protestant administration in Northern Ireland. Power-sharing was the central dream of the Good Friday peace deal of 1998 but fell apart in 2002 amid chronic tensions between Protestants and Sinn Fein, the major Catholic-backed party.
Britain compared the Sinn Fein leader's latest move to the IRA's decision last year to declare its 1997 cease-fire permanent and to surrender its weapons stockpiles to disarmament chiefs.
"This move by Gerry Adams is of enormous significance and is of seismic importance," said Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, who hopes to hand control of 13 government departments in the British territory to local hands March 26.
"Full cooperation by (Irish) republicans with the police, over issues like rape and burglaries, is vital if Northern Ireland is to go into the New Year with a spring of confidence to achieve devolution by the D-Day of March 26," Hain said.
The major Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists, says it will not join Sinn Fein atop a power-sharing administration unless Sinn Fein abandons its policy of hostility to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Currently, Sinn Fein tells supporters not to tell police about crimes, particularly those involving IRA members.
Friday's meeting of the 46-member executive board of Sinn Fein was expected to vote on potential motions to put to a January special convention of the party's 2,000-strong grassroots. Among those being asked to endorse the police were IRA veterans involved in killing nearly 300 officers and maiming thousands of others during the outlawed group's 1970-97 campaign.
The Democratic Unionists appeared divided on whether to welcome or dismiss the latest Sinn Fein moves.
A leading pragmatist in the ranks, lawmaker Jeffrey Donaldson, said he welcomed what he considered "a first step to Sinn Fein embracing the police and the rule of law in Northern Ireland."
But others, who appear opposed to cooperating with Sinn Fein under any circumstances, questioned what Britain had promised Sinn Fein in return for any policing move.
Democratic Unionist chairman Lord Morrow said his supporters needed much more time to access Sinn Fein's conversion to law and order and would not be willing to share power on March 26.
"It is patently obvious that Sinn Fein-IRA cannot deliver to the satisfaction of unionists in such a short space of time," Morrow said. He called on Hain to "spell out in clear, unambiguous terms what new concessions are to be delivered by (the British) government."
The Irish government and moderate Catholic leaders in Northern Ireland said most Catholics wanted police to have freedom to operate in traditional IRA strongholds. They cited the most recent survey on the subject this month, which indicated 79 percent Catholic support for the police.
"Until Sinn Fein engage seriously and honestly in the policing process, (Irish) nationalist neighborhoods will not have the policing they're entitled to," said Alasdair McDonnell, deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Sinn Fein's moderate rival for Catholic votes.
Sinn Fein has resisted recognizing the authority of the Northern Ireland police because of the painful, potentially dangerous divisions it could open up in Sinn Fein-IRA ranks. In recent weeks, Adams and other Sinn Fein leaders have warned they face potential assassination at the hands of IRA dissidents who accuse them of betraying IRA sacrifices.
But Adams _ who was interned as an IRA suspect in the early 1970s and repeatedly interrogated by police as a suspected IRA commander _ said death threats would not "deflect us from doing the right thing."
Policing lies at the heart of the Northern Ireland conflict.
The predominantly Protestant territory, formed in 1921 shortly before the overwhelmingly Catholic rest of Ireland won independence from Britain, never received Catholic support for its Protestant-dominated government and police force.
The Good Friday pact recognized that political stability in Northern Ireland required full Catholic support for the police and dramatic reforms to the existing force, the heavily militarized Royal Ulster Constabulary.
An internationally authored 771-point plan to reshape the RUC into a more Catholic-friendly Police Service began in 2000 and has already scored wide-ranging gains, including a rapid rise in Catholic recruitment to more than 20 percent of officers.