LONDON — A dark cloud now hovers over the peace process in Northern Ireland. By striking with two car bombs at the British Army's headquarters in Northern Ireland, terrorists on Oct. 7 hit the province's politically most sensitive - and supposedly most secure - target.
The bombs shattered a cease-fire that had brought relative calm to Northern Ireland for more than two years, and provoked concern that a new round of communal violence was about to start.
IRA splinter group
British officials in Belfast had suspected the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had planted the bombs, but some observers suspected that the blasts might have been the work of a republican breakaway group operating independently of the IRA, calling itself the Irish Continuity Council.
These suspicions appeared to be confirmed Oct. 8, when a telephone call to RTE, the Irish national broadcasters in Dublin, said so-called "Continuity" IRA carried out the attack on Thiepval Barracks to coincide with the conference this week of Prime Minister John Major's ruling Conservative Party.
The splinter group, believed to include dissident IRA members, claimed responsibility for a jeep bomb that wrecked a Northern Ireland hotel in July. A week before the Lisburn blasts the group claimed to have planted a car bomb in central Belfast that the Army detected and removed.
But the caller offered no code word, as is usually the case with phoned warnings or claims of responsibility from the mainstream IRA, leaving the question the veracity of the call. Martin McGuinness, deputy leader of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, said that the bombing was "regrettable" but he declined to condemn it.
Northern Ireland minister Michael Ancram, who has headed the British side at multiparty peace talks, said, "This is a dire challenge to the peace process."
Many concerns center on the attitude of Unionist (Protestant) paramilitary groups, which in past weeks have been threatening to end the cease-fire they declared in September 1994.
British security sources said there was a serious possibility that the Unionist paramilitary groups would respond to the car bombs with violent acts of their own. If that happens, the sources concede, the peace process would be difficult to revive.
The bombs, which injured about 30 people, triggered a major investigation into how the terrorists penetrated tight security at Lisburn's Thiepval Barracks, near Belfast, where more than 1,500 military personnel and hundreds of civilians work every day.
No warning was given before the bombs went off. There was a 10-minute interval between the blasts. The second bomb was placed at a medical center, apparently to injure people being treated for the effects of the first.
In the aftermath of the blasts, the British and Irish governments said they were united in the conviction that efforts must be redoubled to get the faltering peace process back on track.
British Prime Minister John Major declared: "If anybody thinks they can bomb the British government out of the policy stance we think is right, they are making a very serious and fundamental mistake."
The Irish government condemned "these barbaric bomb attacks" and said they were "aimed at undermining the multiparty talks in Belfast."
Concern for the peace process
Since last February there have been several IRA attacks on British mainland targets, but until the Lisburn bombing British security forces had hoped to prevent further outrages in Northern Ireland itself, where peace talks resumed late last month.
John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, who helped to bring about the cease-fire in 1994, said Oct. 7 he was still hopeful peace could be restored in Northern Ireland. He called the Lisburn attack "a terrible deed." Whoever carried it out "is no friend of Northern Ireland and its people," he said.
Politicians of all constitutional parties called for calm and renewed efforts to prevent the faltering peace process from collapsing altogether.
David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, urged Protestant paramilitary groups not to be provoked into action.
But Gary McMichael of the Ulster Democratic Party, which also has close ties to Protestant paramilitary groups, said the bombings "could have grave implications for the peace process.... Loyalists will be looking at this very closely - it signifies republicans are not intent on finding a democratic settlement."