THE latest bid to end more than 25 years of terrorism in Northern Ireland has been derailed by a sudden escalation of revenge killings between Roman Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups.
A huge bomb detonated Oct. 23 by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in a heavily Protestant area of Belfast, the Northern Ireland capital, killed 10 people, two of them children. Its political impact also has been devastating.
The bombing, the most violent attack in several years, has triggered bitter recriminations between the British government and Irish nationalists. And it has disrupted attempts by John Hume, leader of Northern Ireland's mainly Catholic Social and Democratic Labour Party in the British Parliament, to promote a peace formula along with Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein.
After he offered to negotiate a cease-fire following the Oct. 23 bombing, Mr. Adams was accused of hypocrisy and political blackmail by British Prime Minister John Major.
Home Secretary Michael Howard served Adams with an order preventing him from traveling to the British mainland. Such orders are issued to prevent the entry of people believed to be terrorists.
As thousands of Protestants and Catholics marched in Belfast Oct. 25 to peacefully protest the bombing, Protestant gunmen launched a series of killings to avenge the bombing.
Within 48 hours of the blast in the Belfast's Shankill Road area, four Catholic men had fallen victim to Protestant paramilitary units. In England, IRA units planted bombs at two large railroad stations.
Mr. Hume continued to argue in Parliament that Adams remained interested in peace.
The existence of a Hume-Adams peace plan was first revealed last month. The details, which remain secret, were outlined to the Irish government in Dublin.
Officially, the London government, together with leaders of Northern Ireland's Protestant parties, have continued to say that in the absence of details it was not possible to comment on the Hume-Adams initiative.
Informed press sources in Dublin, however, have suggested that the plan proposes a cease-fire and all-party talks aimed at a political compromise. No compromise
John Molyneaux and Ian Paisley, leaders of the two main Protestant parties in Northern Ireland, have said they will not tolerate any watering down of the union between the province and the rest of Britain.
Sir Patrick Mayhew, secretary of state for Northern Ireland in the London government, told the House of Commons: ``Never is there going to be any bargaining with those who reinforce their arguments with bombs and bullets.'' He demanded that the IRA drop its campaign of violence ``without preconditions.''
Sir Patrick drew support from John Smith, leader of the opposition Labour Party, who said the London government would never succumb to political blackmail. Finger-pointing
Clearly angered by the exclusion order and the verbal onslaught on him, Adams accused the British government of ``playing with the issue of Northern Ireland.''
The London government's hostile actions toward Adams suggest that it connects him to the Shankill Road bombing. One ministerial source said: ``The suspicion must be that Sinn Fein and the IRA are working together, using a combination of violence and offers of compromise.''
One effect of the arguments unleashed by the Oct. 23 bombing has been the frequent appearance of Adams on British television screens, but his words have been spoken by actors, because the British banned the Sinn Fein leader from speaking on the British media four years ago.
Hume, however, continues to back Adams. He said Oct. 25 that the British government would be unwise to reject proposals aimed at ``a lasting peace and total cessation of violence.''
``If people study Mr. Adams's recent interviews, they show clearly his flexibility and his seriousness about this dialogue,'' he added. Credibility gap
Part of Adams's problem in persuading London of his sincerity is that although Sinn Fein, as the IRA's political arm, may be interested in compromise, the IRA itself is divided into several factions, some of which have political agendas of their own.
Seamus Mallon, a deputy to Hume, says that it would be sensible for Britain to agree to talks with Sinn Fein and the IRA.
He said Oct. 26 that although some in the IRA wanted peace and some did not, it was ``worth attempting a dialogue in the interests of measuring the chances of a settlement.''
Both Hume and Mr. Mallon see parallels between the crisis in Northern Ireland and those in South Africa between blacks and whites and in the Middle East between Arabs and Jews.
But Mallon's suggestion Oct. 25 that Britain could ``learn from studying other terrorist threats'' was dismissed by Sir Patrick. He says the difference is that the people who use violence in Northern Ireland live in a democracy, and ``could take advantage of the ballot rather than the bullet.''