The day bombers returned to the mainland

Peace hopes dashed in a single evening
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Ireland Correspondent

At 8.15 last night, just an hour and a quarter after the bomb went off in east London, a nationalist politician in Belfast told of going back to the old security precautions which he had hoped would never be needed again.

"Our armoured door is closed," he said. "The wife's stomach is churning up with acid. Jesus, it's awful, it's dreadful. I've loaded up again." He meant he had put the bullets back into his personal protection weapon, which had been left empty in a drawer for the past year and a half.

In one evening the hopes for a more peaceful future, in which disagreements would be settled by negotiation rather than bombs, appeared to have been shattered. The IRA had, after a quarter-century of terrorism, ventured into politics, but last night's bomb looked like a decisive rejection of talks, and a regression to the bad old ways.

The first early-evening rumours that the IRA was calling off its ceasefire were treated almost with derision in Belfast, for there had been no ominous advance warnings of the breakdown of the ceasefire. Republican spokesmen had been berating the British government, but this was par for the course and nothing out of the ordinary.

There were signs that more dialogue was in the air. On Thursday night Pat McGeown of Sinn Fein had been on local television with Gary McMichael of the Ulster Democratic party, which speaks for the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association. This was a first, for people from the two organisations had never before been interviewed together, and the two men had spoken civilly to each other and had got on surprisingly well.

At lunchtime yesterday Sinn Fein's president Gerry Adams had taken part in an hour-long phone-in on BBC Radio Ulster. He gave a relaxed performance, emphasising the need for talks and giving no inkling of an imminent resumption of violence. Then yesterday afternoon the Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginnis had, for the first time on this side of the Atlantic, taken part in a local television programme debating directly with a member of Sinn Fein. The Sinn Fein representative, Mitchel McLaughlin, reportedly stressed the need for a complete de-militarisation of the situation.

In the event the programme was never broadcast: it was cancelled because of the London bomb.

,An informed guess, at this very early stage, is that the key event in the return to violence was John Major's announcement that he favoured an election before negotiations. Those who were always sceptical of the ceasefire will now argue that the IRA was never serious, and that the resumption proves the Government and the Unionist parties were right to react to it with the utmost caution. Those who believed in the cessation will argue that it was excessive caution which caused it to break down.