WO Bradwell died yesterday from injuries suffered in the IRA bombing of Lisburn barracks earlier this week. In a passage added to the text of his Bournemouth conference speech John Major paid special tribute to the first soldier to die since the IRA ceasefire was announced in August 1994. He then proceeded to attack Mr Adams in the most scathing terms. "For many months, Sinn Fein leaders have mouthed the word peace. Warrant Officer James Bradwell was 43, with a wife and with children, Mr Adams.
"He joined the army, prepared to lose his life defending the British nation. Soldiers do. But he was murdered in cold blood in the United Kingdom. I sent him there, Mr Adams, so save me any crocodile tears. Don't tell me this has nothing to do with you. I don't believe you, Mr Adams, I don't believe you."
The Prime Minister's attack prompted some of the strongest applause of the speech. Mr Adams, in a swift response in Belfast, said: "Personalised attacks are no substitute for real politics. It was the absence of real politics and a good-faith engagement by the British government in the peace process which led to its collapse. Mr Major cannot evade his responsibility and he must bear the lion's share of blame for the current difficulties. His insistence on decommissioning is indicative of a mindset which continues to seek victory, not accommodation."
The Prime Minister also used his speech to announce an expansion of power for the Commons cross-party Northern Ireland Committee, setting up ministerial question times and allowing it to take evidence on proposed legislation. The measure was clearly designed to please Unionists, who have been pressing for such measures for some years. As such, many observers saw it as intended to help keep the Ulster Unionist Party - and its much-needed Commons votes - on side with the Major government. The UUP leader, David Trimble, has recently generated some Government concern by making conciliatory moves towards Labour and its leader, Tony Blair.
In Belfast the confrontational rhetoric from both the Prime Minister and the republicans is seen as confirmation that the two sides have written off the idea of doing any serious business together in advance of the general election. Both seem more concerned with recrimination and apportioning blame rather than working out a deal to make another IRA ceasefire more likely. One source who has had contact with republicans privately this week advanced the opinion that the Lisburn bombings "were probably aimed more at Tony Blair than at John Major". He meant that the IRA may have been more concerned with placing Northern Ireland on the political agenda of the next government rather than altering the course of this one.
The political talks at Stormont, while continuing at a snail's pace, are at least still in session and it is clear that their continuation would be jeopardised by any question of a government concession to the IRA.
Any appearance of concession on arms decommissioning would create a protest against what would be seen as transparent appeasement of terrorism. Such a move would probably lead to a general Unionist walkout from the talks.
None the less, it was noted that in spite of his attack the Prime Minister did not close his mind to an IRA ceasefire and its eventual inclusion in talks.
"The IRA has always believed that Britain can be deflected by terrorism," he said. "They have always been wrong. And they are wrong now."
Mr Major added: "No one will take Sinn Fein seriously ever again until they show a serious commitment to end violence for good."
When Ulster ministers were later pressed to explain whether Mr Major was accusing the Sinn Fein leader of complicity in the bombing, they were careful to direct The Independent to Mr Major's words.
Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, told The Independent: "It reflected exactly what all decent people feel; revulsion at the contrast between those who speak of peace and at the same time are associated with acts of murder."
Peace vigil, page 2
Leading article, page 17