The killers who planned and planted the Omagh bomb are the leftovers of the troubles; the poisoned dregs of 30 years of violence. They are not the here and now but belong instead to the vanishing Ireland of closed minds and fanatical hearts.
I am fond of quoting Yeats in relation to this peace process, only because I believe he was a better social historian than any of our academics. And so, when I imagine the obscenity of an 18-month-old baby blasted to death, I turn to "The Second Coming".
"The blood dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity."
But I do not quote these lines in despair. Rather, I am trying to illustrate how far we have travelled from the divided Ireland so powerfully evoked by Yeats. There was a time when the hatemongers and tribalists were the only show in town, a time when the "best" did truly seem ground down, reduced to fuzzy platitudes but unwilling to force the path to peace. Those days are gone, and we should not let Omagh - for all its horror - convince us otherwise.
I admit that my first reaction when the news came on was to say: "God help this bloody country." My second reaction was to feel deep anger; the kind of anger that makes you lose perspective. There will be many people in Northern Ireland and the South who will want a swift and ruthless response from the security forces. The cries of: "Send in the SAS" or "Intern the bastards" are already being heard. Fair enough. It is hard to blame those who have suffered so much.
But if ever there were a time for calm nerves, this is it. Ruthless counter- insurgency operations and internment might work ... for a while. In the long run, however, they would simply feed the grievance that drives groups like the Real IRA, Continuity IRA and the INLA.
Any crackdown by the Northern or Southern Irish security forces will simply give the dissidents an issue around which to rally support. What works is not the sudden and dramatic imposition of emergency rule. Rather, it is the slow and painstaking business of intelligence-gathering and interception. The vastly improved security co-operation between the North and South has already prevented a large number of dissident operations. After Omagh, that co-operation can only increase. The people have already spoken. The bunch of lunatics responsible for Omagh cannot be allowed to drag us backwards.
My own suspicion is that the Omagh bombing has put the dissidents so far beyond the pale that they have become more than an embarrassment to the mainstream republican movement. They are now a potentially murderous threat.
The Real IRA and its associates regard Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness as traitors, in much the same way that an earlier generation of republicans saw Michael Collins as the enemy of Irish unity.
Adams has not forgotten the fate of Collins, but he must know that he and the rest of Ireland's political leaders have a mandate that would have been unimaginable in Collins' time: a vote by all the people of Ireland to work together in peace.
That is what counts. In the South, we ended the campaign by republican die-hards in 1923 by jailing and shooting. It was a ruthless and bloody campaign when legal norms and niceties were cast aside and scores of republicans were executed. The bitterness left over from that period has only begun to vanish with this generation.
Mr Adams is now confronted by a dilemma similar to that faced by Collins. His former comrades in arms are continuing a war that the vast majority of the people simply do not want. The temptation may be for the mainstream republicans to turn their guns on the dissidents and finish them off in much the same way as Collins did in the Irish Civil War.
This may be tempting, but it is wrong. The last thing we need now is a bloody republican feud. We are now involved in a peace process. Leave the business of dealing with these "bitter-enders" to the legally instituted authorities.
What has been infinitely more valuable are the statements of condemnation from Adams and McGuinness. To those who have become used to their equivocation and dodging down the years, the swift denunciations represent a true step forward.
But actions do speak louder than words. And so in the wake of Omagh we all need to hear that the war is over, that punishment attacks and intimidation are over, that guns and bombs are being put down forever. Otherwise, the condemnation means nothing.
I began by saying that the time of the butchers was passing. A month ago we mourned the death of the three Quinn boys in Ballymoney. That savage burning marked a watershed in loyalism. Omagh represents a similar moment in the history of republicanism. Cold comfort, you might say, to the individuals whose lives and homes have been torn apart by these atrocities. Nothing can conjure smiles and laughter from broken bodies.
But amid the weeping we can see emerging a people determined to set the power of hope against the fearful claims of history; a people who have made a choice that the bombers would never understand; a choice that is fundamentally about good and evil. Welcome to the country of the good.Reuse content