Almost a year of intense political activity has been based on the premise that the IRA could be brought to contemplate a future in which it pursued its aims through unarmed political actions alone. After the Heathrow attacks, the stark question is whether all that effort has been futile.
It may take some time for a definitive answer to emerge. A slightly testy Gerry Adams was yesterday adamant that a peace process could co-exist with mortar bombs raining down on Heathrow's runways. There would be ups and downs, his line ran, but coolness and calmness could overcome these.
It hardly needs saying that a great many people are having difficulty coming to terms with this concept, not just in Britain but also in nationalist Ireland. When the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, spoke late last year of the possibility of peace before Christmas, he was seen as an optimist but not a complete Pollyanna. Suddenly there was a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel.
In the republic it seemed suddenly almost easy: London and Dublin were specifically offering Sinn Fein a route out of violence and into politics which the republicans would be mad not to accept. Mr Reynolds and his people remained determinedly optimistic. This week an Irish government source gave the upbeat assessment: 'So far so good.' That was three hours before the first mortars fell on the airport.
The full implications will take some time to sink in. Even after the first Heathrow attack, yesterday's Irish Times said it 'represents, it must be hoped, one of the last throws of the bloody dice by that violent organisation'. Thus, the disappointment at the Heathrow attacks is even more keenly felt in Dublin than in London, where counsels tended to be divided on the republican intentions.
Mr Adams, it should be remembered, has much to lose in the south, for he has made great presentational gains there of late. These gains were almost entirely contingent on his proving himself to be a man of peace. This new image has taken a battering with the Heathrow attacks and his use of the word 'spectaculars' on an Irish radio interview.
He is now in the business of selling a new vision, that of a protracted peace process during which the war will continue. The idea of quick fixes and short cuts to peace has been shattered, to be replaced by the republican demand that Britain must talk directly to them.
Many will now conclude that Mr Adams never was serious, or that if he was, his pacific tendencies have been overruled by militants in his movement. Others may, after some thought, conclude that there is still enough hope of peace left to justify not slamming the door in his face.
Either way, the hard, brutal fact is that there are to be more killings. Snubbing Mr Adams means Northern Ireland goes back to square one, enduring continuing violence. Taking him at his word means continuing to invest in his credibility, and hoping that somewhere down the line the IRA can be persuaded to abandon armed propaganda. It is a bitter choice for both governments, and everyone else, to have to make.
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