LIKE the rescue workers picking through the wreckage of a bomb blast set off by the IRA in London, the British and Irish governments are on a salvaging mission.
They are trying desperately to discern a path to peace for Northern Ireland, which had until Friday enjoyed a 17-month cease-fire by the Irish Republican Army. British Prime Minister John Major called an emergency meeting of senior ministers and security chiefs, as his Irish counterpart, John Bruton, who has battled hard in recent weeks to keep the peace process alive, held urgent talks with top officials.
But yesterday the prospects appear "bleak indeed," according to a leading analyst of Northern Ireland, Brendan O'Leary. The IRA bomb blast appears to "spell an end" to the peace process and may be "the first of more outrages to come," he adds.
Many politicians and officials privately share Mr. O'Leary's gloomy analysis and are clearly concerned about the credibility of Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political arm. He has served as a bridge to the IRA but is now, they say, at risk of being marginalized by the IRA's unexpected return to violence.
Just an hour before a half-a-ton of explosives was detonated in London, Mr. Adams told Irish TV that the cease-fire he had helped to broker in August 1994 was "total and permanent."
He says that minutes later he learned the cease-fire was in danger and immediately called the White House to alert President Clinton.
British and Irish officials say that Adams will have to struggle to reassert his authority.
"If he did know in advance, how can he be trusted when he talks of his commitment to peaceful methods? If he did not, what is the point of talking to a leader who cannot control the IRA?" wrote Mary Holland, a long-time analyst of Irish affairs in London's Observer yesterday.
The attack was an example of "classic IRA policy" because it put violence ahead of negotiation, said David Capatanchik, a terrorism expert at Aberdeen University in Scotland. It "highlights the IRA's reasons for resisting the decommissioning of arms." Further "opportunist attacks" are "to be expected," he added.
Yet the leadership of the IRA is a secret closely-guarded by the group, making efforts to resolve the crisis difficult for Mr. Major. And the IRA, by its return to bombing, has apparently signaled that it is not interested in talking.
The IRA is also believed to be concentrating on mainland Britain as a potential target, threatening a broad area as well as political support for Major. Terrorist attacks in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, are unlikely, according to Mr. Capatanchik. "Everyone there now enjoys walking around without the immediate threat of an explosion," he said. He suggested that an attack there would further alienate people from the IRA.
For Major, IRA concentration on mainland Britain means London and other large cities will have to remain on high alert. In recent years the IRA's mainland targets have included the Harrods department store, military barracks in central London, and shopping centers.
In central London, high-profile security checkpoints, in abeyance during the cease-fire, are operating again on full alert. Police in other British cities have been ordered to look out for potential acts of IRA violence.
Yet Major is unlikely to come under attack from the opposition Labour Party for his approach to the peace process. Labour leader Tony Blair supported Major's call for elections before all-party talks - the policy that O'Leary and others say may have persuaded the IRA to break the truce.
Northern Ireland Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew said yesterday that "elections must be the next step" and that "they could be held soon."
This would leave Northern Ireland's Protestants happy, because they calculate that in the atmosphere created by the London bombing, Sinn Fein would do badly at the polls.
While Irish officials say elections would make a settlement more difficult in Northern Ireland, Irish Prime Minister Bruton has taken a tougher line since the London attack. The Irish government was willing to listen to Sinn Fein, but would not negotiate "under duress," Mr. Bruton said yesterday, indicating the IRA would have to reinstate its cease-fire for negotiations to resume.
SINCE THE IRA CEASE-FIRE
Aug. 31, 1994: The overwhelmingly Catholic Irish Republican Army announces an "unconditional" end to 25-year violent campaign to end British rule in Northern Ireland.
Oct. 3: US lifts ban on official contact with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA.
Oct. 13: Protestant "loyalist" paramilitary groups also announce cease-fire.
Nov. 23: British Army makes first troop reduction in Northern Ireland since IRA cease-fire.
Feb. 22, 1995: British Prime Minister John Major and Irish Prime Minister John Bruton unveil outline for peace process.
Sept. 5: Ireland postpones summit with Britain over Major's insistence that the IRA disarm before all-party talks begin.
Nov. 28: Britain and Ireland create international panel, headed by US Sen. George Mitchell, to resolve deadlock over disarming.
Nov. 30: Clinton wins popular reception in visit to Northern Ireland, raising hope for peace deal.
Dec. 19: Sinn Fein holds first talks with Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew.
Jan. 24, 1996: Mitchell panel proposes that the IRA give up its arms during all-party talks. Major instead proposes vote in Northern Ireland to elect negotiators, disappointing minority Catholics.
Feb. 9: IRA announces end to cease-fire one hour before it set off bomb blast in London killing two people and injuring dozens. Damage estimated at up to $130 million.