The mood is closer to despair than to mere dismay. Two weeks ago the peace looked to be holding; today people are trying to come to terms with what looks like a return to the worst of the bad old days.
It is all happening with the inexorability of a nightmare. Bit by bit the pieces are falling into place, one step leading to another, the elements that sustained a quarter-century of violence being put in place all over again. And, as in a nightmare, there seems to be no way to stop the process.
Ever since the first post-ceasefire IRA bomb was detonated in Docklands, there was put in place a set of four steps with the potential to restart the troubles. The first step was the Docklands attack itself, which proclaimed in the most brutal way the IRA's readiness to resort once again to the use of force.
The next point was whether this was to be a one-off or the beginning of a campaign. The device in Shaftesbury Avenue and the Aldwych bomb have established that Docklands marked the start of a series. The third point rests on whether the IRA is intent on reopening its campaign in Northern Ireland.
All the signs are that it will do so and that we are in the middle of a phased escalation, with attacks in Belfast next on the agenda. If and when this happens, the fourth step will almost automatically be a resumption of loyalist violence.
It has to be remembered that violence from the extreme Protestants had for a number of years claimed more lives than did the IRA. During the ceasefire, they have shown an encouraging interest in politics, but there is little doubt that when the IRA start again, they too will go back to war. No one seems to know how to halt the four steps and stop the slide to war: perhaps something will prevent it, but no one can see what that might be.
Offering concessions to Gerry Adams at this moment, in the hope he could dissuade the IRA from more bombings, would amount to blatant appeasement of terrorism and would undermine democracy. Offers which might conceivably have been made before Docklands are now impossible because of the nakedness of the IRA's political blackmail.
The idea of attempting new rounds of political talks which exclude Sinn Fein has been tried so many times in the past without success that it has no credibility.
A new IRA campaign will mean new security measures, but the lesson of the last 25 years is that while the security forces can contain the terrorists, they cannot defeat them.
The old stalemate could quickly be re-established, where neither the authorities nor the IRA can achieve a military victory. It was the logic of this reality that led Gerry Adams to think of taking a political path towards a negotiated settlement. The IRA now seems to have rejected his carefully argued logic.
At this moment, the IRA leadership has not put before its own people, the 10 per cent of the Northern Ireland voting population which regularly supports Sinn Fein, an alternative vision of the way ahead. They can scarcely believe that another five or 10 years of bombing will blast the British out of Ireland.
If they do not believe that, however, then logic dictates that there will be, at some stage in the future, another attempt at a negotiated settlement. But everyone can see that a resumption of violence puts back the chances of another invitation to the conference table. It makes no sense.
In the republican ghettos of Belfast, however, it makes sense enough. These are people with low expectations and a high toleration of violence, people who have become acclimatised to shootings and bombings on their streets.
The lesson of the ceasefire, as far as they were concerned, was that the British are not yet ready to do business with their republican leaders.
A Sinn Fein councillor explained yesterday: "The most common thing said to me during the ceasefire was, 'The Brits are rubbing your noses in it.' There's two different things here. Do people want to go back to war? No. Are they prepared to go back to war? Yes. They don't want war, they want peace, but they're not going to back down."
These are people whose life experiences are so removed from those of conventional society that they think differently from everyone else.
They gained less from the ceasefire from the rest of society, concluding they got no new political recognition and certainly no new jobs. So they are fatalistically resigned to fighting on.
For many of them the breakdown of the ceasefire is a disappointment but not a calamity. For the rest of the people of these islands, however, it is a catastrophe which will result in the loss of lives and the loss of much of the hope that Ireland could at last look forward to a future without the shadow of violence.
Ride to terror, page 2
Leading article, page 14
Loyalist response, page 15Reuse content