Can good emerge from the evil of the Omagh bomb?

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CAN ANYTHING good flow from evil, even something as obscenely evil as the Omagh bomb? The answer is yes, possibly, for part of the art of politics is the skill of harnessing the negative energies generated by atrocities and turning them against the terrorist perpetrators.

It feels almost indecent, as the procession of funerals goes on, even to begin to ponder the longer-term political implications. But London and Dublin are certainly doing so, as it is their democratic duty. The terrorists of the "Real IRA" have made a terrible, lethal mistake; now is the time to seize the moment and use it against them.

For one thing, there has never been such a broadly-based consensus against such violence. The bombing was an attack not just on the town of Omagh but also on the Good Friday agreement, and this week all the disparate components of that agreement stood together against it. Those components span a large range, from David Trimble's unionists to Gerry Adams's republicans. Though the two leaders have yet to speak to each other, this week they conspicuously refrained from turning destructively against each other.

Instead, they have shown a sense of common purpose in condemning Omagh. Mr Trimble used to say that bombings such as Omagh were carried out not by genuine republican dissidents, but by proxies egged on by Mr Adams and associates. This week he made no such allegation. Mr Adams, for his part, used not to condemn acts of violence, but this week he did it. In doing so, whether he meant to or not, he implicitly gave the authorities greater licence to move against the "Real IRA".

The challenge posed by the "Real IRA" is very different by that posed in the past by the mainstream IRA and Sinn Fein, but there are many lessons to be drawn from the experience of the Seventies and Eighties. The first is that inflicting civilian casualties ultimately rebounds on the fortunes of republican groups.

The key example here is that of the bombing of Enniskillen, a town not far away from Omagh, where on Poppy Day in 1987 an IRA bomb killed 11 Protestants waiting to watch a Remembrance Day parade. It generated a wave of anger against the IRA which, although huge, was actually smaller than that engulfing the "Real IRA".

A few days after Enniskillen, in a small back room off the Falls Road, a senior IRA man told me: "Politically and internationally, it is a major setback. Our support is in concentric rings. The centre is the republican movement, the next is the nationalist community in the north, followed by the south, then solidarity groups, left groups and finally international sympathy. Our central base can take a hell of a lot of jolting and crises, with limited demoralisation. But the outer reaches are just totally devastated." Everything he said proved correct. The core held together, but the outer reaches were extensively damaged and severe isolation resulted. Those outer reaches were only rebuilt, in fact, when the republicans took to professing an interest in politics and a move away from the bomb.

It is arguable that events such as Enniskillen ultimately hurt the IRA as much as did the whole battery of security, legal and military measures deployed against them by the authorities. The "Real IRA" is now going through the same experience. It has never had widespread support; according to one estimate it consists of perhaps 30 seasoned ex-IRA veterans, together with a few score of young recruits, described by one source as "cubs".

Its political fig-leaf, the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, is a bit of a joke, with maybe a couple of hundred supporters. A small number of activists in the US, who used to raise funds for Sinn Fein, seem to have switched their allegiance to the Sovereignty people. But all this is absolutely minuscule in comparison to mainstream republicanism. Its "central base" is tiny, and after Omagh is already showing signs of panic and disarray.

Even after Enniskillen, Sinn Fein could count on a core vote of around 70,000 people. The Sovereignty Movement has never put forward candidates in elections, and now it is a fair bet that it never will, for the revulsion felt against it is universal and enormous.

The intelligent thing for London and Dublin is to fashion a security response with a high level of political content. The people of Ireland, and everywhere else, want the "Real IRA" dealt with as quickly as possible, and there is a mood abroad which says that if the authorities cut a few corners in doing so, then go ahead. The problem inherent in this, though, is the possibility of the "Real IRA" yet pulling off the old republican trick of transforming themselves from villains into persecuted martyrs. If the authorities use a sledgehammer, without regard for international legal standards, they may conceivably transform this little group into the real IRA.

So where is the good that could flow from all this? The answer is that while these are the worst of times for the people of Omagh, they also appear to be the worst of times for the small, but shockingly dangerous, splinter groups intent on bringing down the Good Friday agreement and returning Northern Ireland to full-scale conflict.

The "Real IRA" has announced a suspension of bombings while the political wing of the Irish National Liberation Army is publicly saying that the time for "armed struggle" is past. On the extreme Protestant side, the Loyalist Volunteer Force says its war is over.

It has also been a chastening time for the militants of the Orange Order, which during last month's Drumcree crisis thought it could paralyse Northern Ireland with impunity. But it ended up taking a large measure of blame for the deaths of the three young Quinn brothers in a fire-bomb attack.

All these groups started out determined to use death or disruption to bring down the agreement and overturn the 71 per cent endorsement in the May referendum. The disruption, and especially the death toll, since then has been awful, but the agreement has proved unexpectedly stable and the anti-accord groups are greatly weakened.

It is thus possible to hope that the political and moral illiterates are, one by one, realising that war has had its day, and to hope that Ireland is still moving in the direction of eventual peace. But other questions remain: Why do these slow learners have to learn the hard way? Why do they always have to be confronted with coffins before they understand? And how many more innocents may die along the tortuous path to peace?