Leading Article: We must not give up now

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IN A FEW, terrible seconds the fragile peace of Northern Ireland was shattered yesterday when a car bomb exploded in Omagh, killing as many as 20 people and injuring hundreds more. It was a scene of carnage many had believed Northern Ireland would never witness again.

Despite the killings and beatings that have occurred in the Province since the Good Friday agreement - most horribly the murder of the three children in the Ballymoney arson attack last month - the people of Ireland, North and South, and of mainland Britain, have continued to hope that Ulster would finally escape the apparently inevitable cycle of violence that has darkened its soul and twisted its mind since the latest round of the Troubles began in 1969. That hope must not now be abandoned, whatever the so-called realists say in the wake of yesterday's demonic act of terrorism.

Hope in these circumstances will of course be dismissed by the doubters as wilful piety. For those who believe - and declare with certainty - that no peace can be brought to Northern Ireland, the Omagh bomb will provide a terrible vindication. There never was a solution to the Troubles, they will say, again. To talk to terrorists, to suppose that the men of violence can become peaceful politicians, is an act of folly - no matter that history is littered with the names of terrorists who became statesmen.

In fact, the optimists, those who refuse to yield to simple certainties of despair, have never believed that the peace process - ratified on Good Friday - would end the violence. They knew for sure that the killing would continue. The point was, however, that the process was the logical conclusion of a policy begun by Margaret Thatcher in 1985 with the Anglo- Irish Agreement. The agreement implicitly recognised the principle of limited cross-border power-sharing. It was followed by covert approaches to the IRA. The agreement and the peace process that followed it were endorsed by both main parties, and by the United States of America. They could not - and cannot - be stopped or reversed. They can, however, be trampled on and mocked by the men of violence.

It is too early to say who was behind yesterday's bomb, though the finger naturally points to those dissident and demented members of the IRA who refused to accept the political ambitions of Gerry Adams and the rest of the Republican movement. These men have threatened violence and undoubtedly have the means to deliver it. But they are, on any reckoning, a small group, far outnumbered by those who believe there must be another way. They ought, therefore, to be easier to contain than the Provisional IRA.

Furthermore, the Government has a mandate to contain the violence, ruthlessly if need be. Last May, 71 per cent of the people of Ulster voted for the Good Friday peace agreement. They voted for peace through power- sharing, and for compromise. Unionists, meanwhile, tacitly accepted that the days of the Protestant ascendancy were numbered. The majority of Irishmen want no part in the tribalism that has brought such misery over the years.

Now the people of Ulster must mourn and bury their dead, as they have done too often in the past - and, alas, will again. The killings will continue, but so will the peace process. The virtue of hope will ultimately triumph over the vice of despair, even in the mean and seemingly intractable streets of Northern Ireland. Great Britain will settle for nothing less.

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