The bitterest comment came from Ulster Unionist figures. Peter Robinson, deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, said the bombing was a premeditated sectarian assault on the Protestant community. 'While John Hume is delivering the Provos' demands to the governments, the Provos are delivering bombs to the Shankill,' he said.
''These butchers are the people we are told want peace. Today's events show that there is only one thing suitable for the IRA - and that is their total elimination and extirpation.'
The DUP leader, the Reverend Ian Paisley, visited the scene and warned that IRA atrocities 'bring other atrocities from the other side', although he condemned violence from wherever it came.
James Molyneaux, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, said in a statement: 'Present-day terrorists derive personal satisfaction from condemnation and pleas to stop. The only effective alternative is acceptance of Lady Thatcher's belated conclusion 'that reason or goodwill can never be a substitute for force'.'
Yet leading figures from the Nationalist community were also outspoken. Dr Joe Hendron, SDLP MP for Belfast West, denounced the IRA killers as 'Provo scum', and called the bombing a two-fingered gesture by the IRA to the dialogue between the SDLP leader John Hume and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein. 'The people of Belfast are now very frightened,' he said. 'This has been a very bad day for peace in Northern Ireland.' Mr Hume himself called the bombing 'an act of mass slaughter'.
Similarly, leading figures in the Irish Republic reacted with outrage at the news of the bombing. Dick Spring, the Irish deputy premier, foreign minister and joint chairman with the Ulster Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew of the Anglo-Irish intergovernmental Ulster Conference, called the blast 'a dreadful provocation'. The Irish minister - due to attend a session of the of the intergovernmental conference in Belfast on Wednesday - spoke of the profound shock that would be felt by Irish people everywhere at the terrorist attack. 'This horrific slaughter and massacre of so many people was an act of the utmost depravity and heartlessness,' he said, appealing for calm in face of the killings and pledging help by the Irish authorities in bringing those responsible to justice.
Dublin's Fine Gael Opposition Party leader, John Bruton, also due in Belfast this week for a series of political meetings, said it was a ghastly IRA atrocity, while the Progressive Democrat Party leader, Mary Harney, said the attack was an attempt to incite civil war.
For the Government, the Northern Ireland Political Affairs minister Michael Ancram branded the attack a 'savage and barbarous incident', adding: 'It makes a total mockery of any talk of peace on the part of the Provisional IRA.'
Speaking on the steps of Stormont Castle, Mr Ancram said said: 'This is the naked face of terrorism at its very worst and all who have any humanity and decency must condemn it totally and without reservation.'
The Labour leader John Smith condemned the bombing and appealed for no retaliation by the Protestant community. He said: 'This is a despicable act of violence perpetrated by depraved people.
'There can be no question of talking to any people or organisations who are capable of such vile cruelty to innocent people.
'I fervently hope that the Protestant community will not be provoked into retaliation which would make this appalling atrocity even worse.'
Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: 'This is an act of indescribable brutality whose aim is callously to sacrifice lives in order to provoke and intensify the sectarian conflict.'Reuse content