FAILING TO GET either Catholic Republicans or Protestant Unionists to agree on a final implementation of the 14-month-old Northern Ireland peace agreement, the leaders of the British and Irish governments now have put forth a plan of their own. Their "way forward" anticipates a new government of power-sharing in Northern Ireland -- this of special concern to the heretofore locked-out Catholic Republican minority. It also launches what is meant to be the prompt and full disarming or "decommissioning" of arms by the IRA, military wing of the Catholic Sinn Fein party -- this of special concern to the Protestant Unionists.

To an outsider -- the United States, for example -- the new detailed terms seem eminently fair: something carefully balanced and of great importance for both sides. But of course real political commitments to change can never be easy for the parties involved. In this instance, Sinn Fein's quick favor for the British-Irish "way forward" is in notable contrast to the hesitation of Unionists, many of whom object to the planned order of coming events: local government first in Northern Ireland, IRA disarmament second. Unionists would prefer to have it the other way around.

The issue of priority seems less urgent, however, when measured against the fact that the new power-sharing cabinet is to be set up as soon as mid-July, while IRA disarmament is to start only a month later -- and to be completed by the May 2000 deadline written into the basic Good Friday Agreement of April 1998. These things will happen, that is, if the Northern Ireland parties make them happen.

"The discussions have been difficult," said the Irish and British prime ministers. "But as they conclude, the peace process is very much alive, and on track. The Good Friday Agreement presents the best chance of peace and prosperity in decades. It is clear from our discussions that nobody wants to throw that opportunity away." There is an element of hope tinged by anxiety in these words, and an element of ineluctable truth as well.