and JASON BENNETTO
Loyalist paramilitary groups in Belfast yesterday warned that any further IRA attacks in Britain would bring a violent reaction from them, declaring: "We will give blow for blow."
The loyalist message was that, while the ceasefire they declared in October 1994 still holds, they are poised between peace and war. They have in effect drawn a line in the sand and warned the IRA that more bombs will bring retaliation.
The warning came shortly after the IRA admitted that it planted a Semtex bomb that exploded in Brompton Road, Fulham, west London, early on Saturday.
The loyalist statement confirmed the feeling of many observers that Northern Ireland could easily slip back into a new cycle of Troubles. The IRA has been responsible for four bomb incidents in London since February, but so far has not returned to violence in Ulster.
For some weeks, loyalist sources have been saying that IRA bombs in London did not carry the same resonance as republican attacks in Belfast, and that the Protestant paramilitaries might hold back if IRA violence was confined to Britain.
Yesterday's statement therefore represents a raising of the stakes. In some ways it is a mirror image of recent IRA statements, which have contained noticeably hardline pronouncements together with less conspicuous indications that peace remains an option.
The statement came from the Combined Loyalist Military Command, which speaks for the three main paramilitary groups - the Ulster Volunteer Force, Ulster Defence Association and Red Hand Commandos. It declared: "We have withstood the recent provocation of IRA bombs on the mainland which have killed our innocent British fellow citizens. These atrocities cannot be permitted to continue without a telling response from this source. We are poised and ready to strike to effect. We will give blow for blow. As in the past, whatever the cost, we will gladly pay it. Now is the time to draw back from the brink."
Loyalists said there would be no breakaway by fringe elements. Recently, there have been reports of dissent among the ranks of some groups, but yesterday there was said to be unity. At the same time, the leaderships of the various groups seem to have shifted towards a more extreme position.
Gary McMichael, leader of the Ulster Democratic Party which is close to the UDA, said the paramilitaries were responding to the IRA threat that they were ready for another 25 years of war. "Loyalists are saying that they are prepared for that eventuality also, but that they are ready for peace.
"We are on a kind of knife-edge, and if we move into a situation where war is inevitable the consequences are that that war will be a very bloody one and a very vicious one. We have to look at that in contrast to where we can go, and where people want us to go, and that is towards a peaceful settlement."
Anti terrorist officers believe the device that exploded in a rubbish bin in Fulham was probably dumped by a novice terrorist who panicked during an aborted mission. The IRA yesterday claimed responsibility for the bomb in a telephone call to the BBC in Belfast. It is understood to have contained a couple of pounds of explosive and was the fourth bomb since the IRA ceasefire ended. No one was injured.
The IRA admission came as Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was setting off on a St Patrick's Day trip to the United States. Before leaving Dublin, Mr Adams said he was still pledged to peace. He has been banned from the White House and from any contact with presidential officials in the wake of the collapse of the ceasefire.
President Clinton, speaking in New York earlier in the day, condemned the resumption of violence. "The people of Northern Ireland have clearly chosen peace. They have chosen dialogue over division. They do not deserve to have a small group choose bloodshed and violence - and shatter their dreams."
John Major is expected to announce early next week what type of elections he is proposing to call in the run up to the all-party talks scheduled for 10 June. The Irish prime minister John Bruton yesterday appealed directly to the IRA to give Sinn Fein a place at the table by reinstating the ceasefire.