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The Irish Republican Army's decision to lay down its arms and try for victory at the negotiating table was years in the making.

John Hume, the pre-eminent Catholic politician in Northern Ireland, had a crucial role in persuading Sinn Fein, the IRA's political partners, that nonviolence might work where nearly a quarter-century of violence failed.Hume's timing was right. When he started talking secretly with Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams last year, the IRA was already pursuing a clandestine dialogue with Britain.

There were new leaders in the capitals that counted. Quiet John Major had replaced the strident Margaret Thatcher in London; in Dublin, Albert Reynolds, a man known to have little interest in history, succeeded Charles Haughey, once accused of shipping guns to Northern Ireland.

And in Washington, President Clinton had promised Irish-Americans he might appoint a special envoy to sort out the Northern Ireland problem.

The open-ended IRA cease-fire announced Wednesday is at best a beginning to solving the province's "troubles," but it is stunning nonetheless.

Britain sent troops into the streets of Northern Ireland in 1969 to break up battles between the pro-British Protestant majority and Irish Catholic minority. In 1970 the IRA began its violent campaign to end British rule.

The IRA felt it had been conned when it last called an extended cease-fire, in 1975. Concessions from Britain never came, and a badly weakened IRA vowed never again.

From then into the mid-1980s, the IRA was committed to a "long war," determined not to stop shooting until Britain set a date for withdrawal.

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, both senior IRA figures in the 1970s, began building Sinn Fein into a political force. They developed a strategy of defeating Britain with a gun in one hand and a ballot in the other.

As long as Sinn Fein held on to the gun, however, no one else would deal with it - not the British, nor the Irish government, nor any other political party in Northern Ireland, Protestant or Catholic.

Hopes for peace faded in the fall of 1993, when pro-British para-militaries and the IRA staged attacks and counterattacks in which nine Protestants and 14 Catholics - including one IRA man - were killed.

But Reynolds and Major persevered. Standing in front of a Christmas tree outside Major's Downing Street residence, they said that if the IRA permanently ended its campaign, they would be talking to Sinn Fein within three months.

On Wednesday, Adams delivered. The IRA finally declared "a complete cessation of military operations," and Northern Ireland stood at the edge of uncharted territory.