Ulster faces return to war footing

Fears grow that loyalist ceasefire will break down after IRA admits Lisburn bombing
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The Independent Online
Northern Ireland last night faced the grim prospect of a return to a full war footing as the IRA admitted responsibility for Monday's bomb attacks on army headquarters at Lisburn, Co Antrim.

In its wake, fears are high that the two-year-old loyalist ceasefire will come under intolerable pressure. Loyalist sources warned last night that the ceasefire was close to breaking-point.

In a statement which the Prime Minister at once denounced as "sickening", the IRA said that its targets had been military personnel and claimed that it regretted the injuries to civilians.

The IRA said that the devices, the first set off by the terrorist organisation in Northern Ireland in more than two years, had each contained 800lb of explosives.

Thirty-one people were injured by the two car-bombs which exploded without warning inside the base.

Eight of the victims were seriously hurt, with one critically injured soldier suffering from a fractured skull, burns to at least half his body and other injuries.

John Major, speaking at the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth, said that the IRA had set out to murder people, describing as sickening hypocrisy recent statements from Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness calling for talks with the Government.

Last night the SDLP leader, John Hume, called on loyalist paramilitary groups not to respond violently, declaring: "They must see that violence only deepens the problem and makes things worse."

A high-level police and army inquiry has been set up to establish how the IRA breached security to smuggle two large bombs into what has always been regarded as one of Northern Ireland's most secure locations. The Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, cut short his visit to a Northern Ireland investment conference in Pittsburg to return to Belfast for emergency talks with the RUC Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Annesley and the Army GOC, Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Smith. He admitted that there had been a serious security breach but said there were no plans to bring in more troops in its wake.

Mr Adams, speaking before the IRA admission of responsibility, had declared that he was ready for talks with the Government.

He added: "There has been a protracted political vacuum here. If we don't fill that vacuum with real talks then it will be filled with the sort of serious incidents we saw yesterday."

David Ervine, of the Progressive Unionist party, which has links with loyalist paramilitaries, appealed to the extreme Protestant groups not to be provoked into violent retaliation. He declared: "Don't do it, don't do it. Your leadership has been mature, it has been wonderful. Let's have more of it. Allow the talks process to try and develop something."

Even though the IRA ended its 17-month ceasefire in February, the fact that it had confined its bombings to England had led to hopes that Northern Ireland might escape the return of the bombers.

The Lisburn bombs shattered those hopes. The blasts also put paid to any idea that the multi-party talks which are being held in Belfast can be expanded into fully inclusive negotiations.

It is still not clear whether the IRA is intent on reviving its campaign at its previous levels, which saw up to a hundred people being killed each year, or whether it will opt for a more sporadic type of campaign.

But whatever its precise plans, the IRA, by bringing the bomb back to Northern Ireland, has greatly increased the chances of loyalist retaliation. The loyalist ceasefire has been under increasing strain, and there is now a probability that it will break down. The loyalist groups held their hands while the IRA campaign was confined to England, but IRA bombings in Northern Ireland have a more potent resonance.

The nightmare scenario is that the IRA campaign is re-started at a high level, resulting in loyalist retaliation.

Renewed Protestant violence would almost certainly mean the expulsion from the political talks of the fringe parties which speak for the loyalist paramilitary groups.

There will be speculation that the IRA has reopened its Northern Ireland campaign because of significant reverses suffered recently by the terrorists in England, where important personnel and material have been lost.

It seems unlikely, however, that the Lisburn bombings were precipitated solely by a short-term tactical desire to demonstrate that the IRA has not lost its teeth. The decision to go back to the bomb has such far-reaching implications that it must have been taken in the full knowledge that it is a potentially momentous step - momentous in the worst possible way.