BRITAIN is close to giving up all hope that last December's peace bid in Northern Ireland has any chance of succeeding.
A mood of pessimism now prevails at 10 Downing Street, following a mortar attack Wednesday night on London's Heathrow Airport by a terrorist team.
It was the first serious terrorist attack on mainland Britain since the Anglo-Irish Downing Street declaration last December, which invited the Irish Republican Army to end its campaign of violence in exchange for a seat at the negotiating table. Police say that an IRA unit had fired four mortar shells onto the airport's northern runway from the back of a car in a nearby hotel parking lot. The shells failed to explode, but a police security expert at the scene said the assault had been ``potentially devastating'' because planes were taking off and landing at the time.
A Concorde flight from New York had touched down minutes before the mortar shells were fired.
A Downing Street source said yesterday that the IRA had apparently struck deliberately on the eve of talks between the British and Irish governments, which were intended to measure the chances of success of their joint peace initiative.
The attack also coincided with a House of Commons vote renewing legislation to combat IRA violence.
In the House of Commons yesterday Prime Minister John Major came under pressure from Ulster Unionist politicians representing Northern Ireland's Protestant majority, to concede that the Downing Street initiative had failed. The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, said: ``No one in Northern Ireland now believes there is any peace process.''
Give peace a chance
Mr. Major has continued to stress the need to carry on with the Anglo-Irish peace talks even if the IRA refuses to end its campaign of violence.
The makeshift mortars used in the attack was similar to those employed by the IRA to target police stations and other security-sensitive buildings in Northern Ireland. It can be fired over distances of up to half a mile. British police have launched an urgent review of security at Heathrow and other airports.
Michael Howard, the home secretary, said that Wednesday's assault on Heathrow airport was ``deeply serious.'' British officials speculated that the attack, which was preceded by a recognized IRA telephone warning, may have been the work of a breakaway terrorist unit.
Tom King, a former Northern Ireland secretary, believes radical groups in the IRA have been putting pressure on Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, to reject the Downing Street initiative.
``I don't think this attack comes as a great surprise,'' Mr. King said. ``There are elements within the IRA who are going to lash out in the only way they know how.''
Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland secretary, and Dick Spring, foreign minister of the Irish Republic, met yesterday in London, as part of a continuing peace process. The Anglo-Irish initiative, which may include the offer of a local assembly for Northern Ireland, involves the British and Irish governments and Northern Ireland's legal parties, but excludes Sinn Fein.
The key to progress
Sinn Fein has conducted separate talks with the centrist and mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party, in hopes of arriving at their own proposal for separation with London.
British officials say the prime minister thinks Sinn Fein holds the key to peace, but he will not allow the Republicans' apparent refusal to halt violence interfere with progress by the other parties. Major remains hopeful that Sinn Fein will eventually drop its repeated demand for renegotiation of the Downing Street declaration, officials say, but senior members of the London government take a gloomy view of the prospects.
In a sign of its determination to resist violent acts by the IRA, the government on Wednesday night renewed the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which gives it sweeping powers to detain and question suspected terrorists and to prevent them from entering Britain.
The British Parliament also has decided to set up a cross-party House of Commons committee on Northern Ireland, which Ulster Unionists have been demanding for years. The committee would have no legislative power and would have no part in the peace process, but would allow Parliament to review on a regular basis government policy on Northern Ireland.
The IRA's use of a mortar attack is particularly significant, British officials say. The last time such weapons were used was in 1991, when a team of terrorists fired a mortar bomb at 10 Downing Street, shattering windows while Mr. Major was presiding over a Cabinet meeting.
By selecting Heathrow as a target, the IRA was hitting at the world's busiest international airport. It is used by more than 80 airlines and handles 47 million passengers a year.