Omagh bomb: Paisley's hardliners may reap the benefit

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THE Rev Ian Paisley and his hardline unionists were felt to be the main political beneficiaries from yesterday's outrage at Omagh.

It was thought that his hardline opposition to the Northern Ireland peace process would attract more converts from Ulster's Protestant community in the wake of the carnage.

Aware of the political advantage that might now flow to Mr Paisley, David Trimble, Ulster's First Minister, made clear his deep misgivings about the provisional IRA's refusal to give up its armoury. "That bomb would not have been made or detonated if Sinn Fein/IRA had handed over its explosives and weapons," he said.

That was a reference to the fact that the organisation led by a former IRA quarter master - the so-called "Real IRA" - was thought to be responsible for yesterday's explosion.

Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein president, "condemned (the blast) without any equivocation" - the first time he has "condemned" a republican bomb, rather than "regretted" the loss of life caused. He said that he was "totally horrified" by the attack.

Mr Trimble cut short a holiday in Germany to return to Ulster and express his deep sympathy for the bereaved, and attempt to cope with the inevitable question marks which would now appear over the whole peace process.

Amid the expressions of deep sorrow over the slaughter at Omagh, senior British and Irish politicians registered their intention to take a far tougher line with the republican dissidents thought to be responsible for the bomb.

Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, said his Government would now "ruthlessly suppress" the terrorists: "We will not be found wanting in ensuring that no organisation in our jurisdiction can continue to defy the Irish people."

Mr Ahern's comments follow indications earlier this month that the Irish Government was about to tackle breakaway republican terrorists head on. Sources in Dublin held out the possibility of tougher legislation, but the new hard line fell short of threatening internment of suspects, which is thought to be counterproductive.

The Irish security forces are to target the long-established and far left Irish National Liberation Army, the Continuity IRA and the so-called "Real IRA" which was thought to be responsible for yesterday's outrage. It was expected that Irish forces would redouble their surveillance efforts on known sympathisers especially near the border.

Tony Blair and Martin McGuinness, mid-Ulster MP and a Sinn Fein leader, joined in pledging that the Omagh bombers would not be allowed to wreck the Ulster peace agreement.

Mr Paisley, however, said that the comments by Mr McGuinness fell short of outright condemnation. He said the Sinn Fein leader was guilty of "double talk".

Mr Paisley said:"No one can do a bombing anywhere in Northern Ireland without the knowledge of the IRA and without their collusion in it."

He described the British Government's involvement in the peace process as "reprehensible". They had made "concession after concession after concession", he said.

Sources in Washington said the blast would not prevent the planned visit by Bill Clinton to the province next month.

Both Mo Mowlam, Northern Ireland Secretary, and Mr Blair were last night considering whether to cut short their holidays on the continent.