Moments That Made The Year : The bombs that blew away peace in Ulster

Euphoria turned to dismay with the return of the terrorists, writes David McKittrick

It has truly been an annus horribilis for Northern Ireland, an awful, dispiriting year: 1996 opened with an IRA ceasefire and the possibility of real talks; it closes with the Government and the republicans at loggerheads, and more bombs feared at any moment.

Half a year's worth of political talks, sans Sinn Fein, have proved almost entirely unproductive, inducing even more cynicism in an already pessimistic population. The joy of peace has been replaced by the fear of more war.

And yet it is still possible to hear, in republican and other circles, people saying in their flat Belfast monotone: "It's over." It is certainly a tense and dangerous time; there is, almost certainly, more death and destruction to come; yet overall the sense is still that the troubles are moving towards their end.

It is impossible to disprove the opposite theory, which is that the troubles are endless and the future holds not only eternal deadlock but perpetual violence too. Yet even this terrible year had in it what can be seen as signs of hope for medium-term prospects.

They were, admittedly, small enough signs, and they were eclipsed by the many setbacks. The year opened well enough, just a month after the near-rapturous visit to Belfast by Bill Clinton, when the IRA ceasefire still held. But on Friday 9 February the IRA blew up Docklands, east London, killing two men, and euphoria was replaced by dismay.

The year was punctuated by violence. Among other attacks, the IRA tried to blow up Hammersmith bridge, in west London, in April, and in June it killed an Irish detective and blew up Manchester city centre. In July, it had 10 tonnes of explosives seized in London; in October, it set off two car bombs inside the army Northern Ireland headquarters at Lisburn, County Antrim.

A soldier died in the Lisburn attack, no one died in Manchester, but in each case it was only good fortune which prevented large-scale loss of life. The Lisburn bombings in particular were aimed at causing as many deaths as possible.

Yet it is also clear that during 1996 the IRA was fighting, in its terms, only half a war, maintaining a level of activity which fell far short of its full capacity for mayhem. People have died and destruction has been caused, yet the terrorists did not crank the conflict up to pre- 1994 ceasefire levels.

The signs are that this restricted level of activity is intended to send a political message. The republicans sent an explicit message to London via John Hume: the proposition that the ceasefire would be restored if immediate negotiations were guaranteed.

The SDLP leader met the IRA within weeks of the Docklands bomb. Within a few months he and Gerry Adams had put together "Hume-Adams Mark 2," a draft formulation to be taken to John Major. Mr Hume shuttled back and forward between Mr Adams and Mr Major, and in July, the Prime Minister gave Mr Hume the terms of a possible re-statement. In October, Mr Hume gave Mr Major another re-formulation; a week later, Mr Major replied to it.

It did not offer the republicans immediate entry into all-party talks, stipulating instead that any new ceasefire must be followed by an indeterminate monitoring period. On 28 November, Mr Major published his reply, and a week ago confirmed this was his "last definitive word on the subject before the election". This seems to have in effect closed the negotiation.

Opinions will forever vary on whether the Prime Minister's attitude was dictated by high-minded considerations of national security and protection of the democratic processes, or by a rather more ignoble desire not to antagonise right-wing backbenchers and Unionist MPs.

But the real surprise was not that the republican overture had been turned down, but that it had been made in the first place, despite the high risk of failure. This suggests that the republicans - like the rest of nationalist Ireland - believe the way ahead is not through restarting war, but a revival of the peace process.

The IRA ceasefire ended in 1996, but the peace process provided a model for an exit from the troubles. This is the difference between now and the 1970s and 1980s: in those days, violence seemed literally without end. Today, despite the bombs, there is an assumption that it will, after the election, be tried again; that there is a faint light discernible at the end of the tunnel; and that it is not illogical to be a short-term pessimist and a medium-term optimist.

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