Loyalist sources hinted that more attacks would follow unless the IRA moved to declare a fresh ceasefire. Republicans are adamant, however, that there will be no cessation of violence in the absence of movement by London.
Given this stand-off, there were widespread fears that a phase of concentrated paramilitary violence lies ahead. No one is sure whether the loyalists will attempt to crank violence up to the high levels of the early Nineties, or follow the IRA's lead and wage a more limited campaign.
But all observers agreed that the breaking of the ceasefire, which has held since October 1994, is a most serious development which could have the direst consequences. At worst, there could be a sharp rise in violence coupled with severe disruption of the political processes.
In London, Commander John Grieve, head of Scotland Yard's anti-terrorism squad, made a pre-Christmas appeal for the public not to relax its guard. Asking for information about a man caught on security cameras in Shepherds Bush, west London, on 8 November (before a suspected IRA raid), Mr Grieve said that Christmas for his squad "means that we will hope for the best and prepare for the worst".
The attack that broke the ceasefire came in the Catholic Ardoyne area of north Belfast just after noon yesterday, when a bomb went off under a car belonging to Eddie Copeland, a well-known republican. Two years ago he was named by the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble as an IRA "godfather". Mr Copeland suffered leg injuries in the explosion. He was in a stable condition in hospital last night.
Speculation that the loyalist cessation was in danger followed the widely condemned incident last Friday night when IRA gunmen fired at two police officers in a corridor of a Belfast children's hospital. Although only one officer was slightly injured, the fact that the men had been guarding a loyalist politician who was visiting his seriously ill son, and that a murder attempt had taken place close to sick children, generated widespread anger.
It was seen as the particularly provocative culmination of a series of IRA attacks, beginning with the bomb near Canary Wharf in Docklands, east London, last February, which had put the loyalist ceasefire under mounting pressure. With more IRA attacks expected, an outbreak of loyalist violence had seemed almost inevitable.
No organisation had last night claimed responsibility for the explosion, but loyalist sources made no secret of their involvement. This raises the important issue of the continuing presence in the Stormont political talks of the fringe parties which have close connections with loyalist paramilitary groups.
During the summer the Rev Ian Paisley tried to have the two fringe parties expelled because loyalist groups had issued a death threat to one of their members. Yesterday's attack may well mean the exclusion of those parties.
The Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginnis suggested yesterday that the talks might now be disrupted, declaring: "If both traditions are involved in the violence then I believe the talks at the present level ... are not sustainable."
David Adams of the Ulster Democratic Party, one of the fringe groupings, said: "If this is a loyalist attack, I will continue to advocate that loyalism pulls back from the brink and should not be provoked into retaliatory attacks. Loyalists have withstood provocation since Canary Wharf, and with that provocation continuing it seemed to me that it was only a matter of time before there was some sort of response."
David Ervine, of the other fringe party, the Progressive Unionists, struck a more pessimistic tone when he said: "I think it is potentially the beginning of a spiral."
Andrew Hunter, chairman of the Tory backbench Northern Ireland committee, was also pessimistic. "It has all the hallmarks of loyalist retaliation following a crescendo of IRA provocation over the last fortnight or so," he said. "It was horribly predictable in the light of that increase in provocation. The future looks very bleak indeed."
Lord Holme, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on Northern Ireland, appealed to loyalists to draw back, saying: "The IRA want to suck Northern Ireland back into the spiral of brutal attack and reprisal."Reuse content