Northern Ireland's two most important political leaders took the tough decisions that led to Friday's historic agreement to end the long and bloody conflict in the province. But three outsiders played equally crucial roles.

The two principals were David Trimble, leader of the Protestant Ulster Unionist Party, and Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein. The outside support came from Prime Ministers Tony Blair of Britain and Bertie Ahern of the Irish Republic and from President Clinton.Blair broke off all engagements, including a planned Easter weekend holiday in Spain with his family, and rushed to Belfast on Tuesday evening when the Ulster Unionists rejected a draft agreement and the peace process seemed all but dead.

Ahern flew in on Wednesday morning, even though his 87-year-old mother had died on Sunday and he was to attend her funeral Wednesday afternoon.

Together the two prime ministers breathed new life in the process and kept an anxious President Clinton in Washington informed of their progress. Then on Thursday night, when a deadline for agreement came and went, Clinton started working the phones to the political leaders, giving them the encouragement to take the risks for peace that finally led to Friday evening's historic accord.

The result was an agreement that ends the violence of the Irish Republican Army and Protestant paramilitaries, restores self-government to Northern Ireland after 26 years of British direct rule, provides for Protestant and Catholic power sharing and creates new constitutional links between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

For Trimble and Adams, there was one overriding incentive to reach an agreement. Both had taken considerable political risks in entering peace negotiations two years ago, and neither wanted to be condemned in the pages of history as the man who caused the lengthy, complex and laborious effort to fail.

But the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic was the issue that brought the talks to a crisis point and prompted the intervention of the three national leaders.

The Ulster Unionists concluded on Tuesday that the draft agreement, presented by talks chairman George Mitchell of the United States but actually drawn up by the Irish and British governments, was unacceptable. In their view, it created a North-South Ministerial Council with such wide powers that it could become the embryo of a united Ireland.

That is when Blair stepped in. His Northern Ireland secretary, Marjorie "Mo" Mowlam, has never gotten along well with Trimble, and she has left the handling of Trimble to Blair. But, because of his many other duties, Blair apparently failed to see that the wording of the draft agreement was a red flag to the Unionist leader.

He met immediately with Trimble upon his arrival in Belfast, and, although neither man said afterward what had passed between them, Blair apparently offered reassurances that took the heat out of the crisis. By Wednesday morning, Trimble was talking in much more positive terms.

Then Ahern came in, and the Unionists outlined their objections to him, with Blair listening. The Unionists presented their own ideas on how the Ministerial Council should be set up and what powers it should be given, and by Thursday both sides had reached a compromise.

The council would continue to derive its authority from legislation to be enacted in London and Dublin, as Ahern wanted, but it would be rooted in the Northern Ireland legislative assembly, as the Unionists wanted.

Now it was the turn of Sinn Fein to become worried. Adams and his backers believed Ahern had gone too far in accommodating the Unionists and they would have trouble selling such an arrangement to the IRA and to their own grassroots following.

So the Thursday midnight deadline passed without agreement. Enter Bill Clinton, stage center. Clinton got on the phone to most of the key players: Trimble, Adams, Blair, Ahern and John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labor Party.

At 4 a.m. Friday, Sinn Fein officials were saying they did not know if they could accept the agreement as matters stood.

Exactly what Clinton said to Adams is not known, but Adams places heavy reliance on the friendship he has forged with the president and, by dawn, Sinn Fein was singing a different tune.

The conclusion of those involved almost certainly will be that nothing could be taken for granted. It took the courage of political leaders willing to take risks and compromise on long-held positions, along with the commitment of the British, Irish and American leaders to salvage two years of hard work and give Northern Ireland people, at last, a hope of genuine peace.

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