It is still not clear whether the bombs in east London were planted by the IRA or splinter group. But that is a detail. Whoever was responsible, last night's bomb was a grave development. The armed wing of the republican movement appears to have returned to a war of attrition that now looks more anachronistic and aimless than ever.
Nowhere will the misery of this event be felt more acutely than in Northern Ireland. After 25 years of killing, everyone there had had enough. And as the peace continued, the pleasure and relief of peace grew. People felt safe to go out at night. They ceased to worry when a friend or relative failed to come home at the expected time. Old boundaries and borders were crossed. Investment and jobs were being attracted, with much waiting in the wings to see whether the peace would last.
The rising hope was most obvious during Bill Clinton's visit to Belfast before Christmas. A dour city that had failed to celebrate the first anniversary of the ceasefire in September at last felt relaxed enough to let down its hair and enjoy the freedom of peace.
Whatever the frustrations felt about the failure of political talks about Northern Ireland's future, there were no demands among the nationalist community for the IRA to recommence its campaign. This is not 1969, when Catholics were being burned out of their homes and expected the IRA to play a protective role. This is 1996, when nationalist political representatives are engaged in detailed talks with the Government about establishing a long-lasting political settlement in Northern Ireland. It is a period when the Dublin government has been offered unprecedented influence in the affairs of Northern Ireland. Indeed, there were fears among Unionists that the nationalist agenda had largely been accepted by the British government.
The people of Northern Ireland must now make their feelings known about the failure of the IRA to keep its promise. The IRA does not speak for the vast majority of the population. Those horrified by the prospect of the termination of the peace process must now go out into the streets in vast numbers to send the IRA the unequivocal message that they abhor what happened last night.
The greatest loser from the collapse of the ceasefire will be the republican movement. Sinn Fein was in the process of being rehabilitated and accepted as a constitutional party. The advantages and opportunities to pursue its goals peacefully were plain. Only this month, Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, shook hands with President Clinton. He has been feted in America, even talked about for a Nobel peace prize. In Britain, the way had been cleared for comprehensive talks on the future of Northern Ireland, albeit delayed until elections had been held.
Unless Sinn Fein clearly rejects the IRA's abandonment of the 17-month ceasefire, that party must expect once more to be ostracised and excluded from the political process in Northern Ireland. The days when the republican movement could use both the Armalite and ballot box to further their aims are over. It would have to learn that the title, Sinn Fein, meaning "Ourselves Alone", will be literally true.
The next few days will reveal Sinn Fein's position. It may be that the bombing and the breakdown of the ceasefire was the work of a splinter group, against the advice of Sinn Fein. However, we must also beware of Sinn Fein presenting itself as powerless to stop the IRA campaign and using violence as tool to manipulate politics in Northern Ireland. This would be a dangerous game for Mr Adams to play.
The disappointment at the breakdown in the ceasefire will also be acute in both London and Dublin. John Major associated his administration closely with the peace process. The ending of the IRA's ceasefire - and the subsequent peace process - was expected to be the most significant feature of his time in office. Likewise, the administration in Dublin has worked hard to push the political process along and maintain the commitment of republicanism.
The lesson that both governments must take from last night's bombing is that they must redouble their efforts to provide leadership and a vision of a better Ireland. Amid the bickering of the past few months, they have at times lost sight of the big picture and the great opportunity which has presented itself. Now is the time to hold up that big vision once again in the hope that the current breakdown in peace will be shortlived, once the perpetrators of last night's outrage recognise the fruitlessness of their action.
In the volatile situation that is bound now to develop in Northern Ireland, it is essential that the loyalist paramilitaries do not now escalate the situation. They have promised to honour a "no first strike" policy. But they must not now feel free to end their ceasefire, a move that could only fuel sectarianism in Northern Ireland and make it still harder to re-establish peace.
Likewise, it is not time for Unionist politicians such as Ian Paisley to harp on about their view that the peace would never last. The peace process always lacked sufficient backing from Dr Paisley: we do not need any more of his inflammatory language at this dangerous time.
Likewise, David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, must act in a statesmanlike fashion. He has in recent weeks demonstrated a more imaginative attitude to political progress. It was his idea to hold elections in Northern Ireland, so offering a way around an issue that was preventing talks - the decommissioning of weapons.Reuse content