THE latest stage in the Northern Ireland peace process is getting under way amid conflicting signals about the intentions of the Irish Republican Army.
A bomb attack in the heart of the British capital on Wednesday night bore all the hallmarks of the IRA, according to London police. But behind the scenes, there are indications that the paramilitary group's political wing, Sinn Fein, may yet come to the conference table to help work out a final settlement to the drawn-out Northern Ireland conflict.
Early that day, British Secretary for Northern Ireland Sir Patrick Mayhew and other government ministers began rushing through legislation to prepare for elections to a peace assembly on May 30 followed by all-party talks on June 10.
Government officials in both London and Dublin expressed "guarded optimism" about the prospects of a new IRA truce before that date.
But hours later on the same day, one of inner London's plushest residential districts was rocked by what an antiterrorist police spokesman described as "almost certainly a small IRA explosive device."
The blast in The Boltons, where film stars, Arab millionaires, and diplomats maintain large houses, caused no injuries and only minor damage.
"The message is clear. The IRA have turned their backs on the peace process. We must batten down the hatches," said David Wilshire, vice chairman of the Conservative Party's Northern Ireland committee.
But government sources said the bomb, though probably the work of the IRA, was not necessarily proof that the peace process was doomed or that the IRA intended to carry on with a campaign of terror.
Mr. Mayhew said on Tuesday that there were still "sensible grounds to be hopeful" of progress in the peace process, and that the IRA must declare a cease-fire "soon" if Sinn Fein was to be allowed into all-party talks.
But Albert Reynolds, the former Irish prime minister, who held office when the IRA declared a cease-fire in the fall of 1994, said he did not expect an immediate announcement of a fresh cease-fire by the IRA. "If the right conditions are brought about by the British government, a review of the whole situation could take place," he said.
Despite the jolt administered by another apparent IRA bomb blast, assessments in London and Dublin of peace prospects seemed relatively unchanged.
A British security source said the latest explosive device was a very small-scale affair, comparable to one that exploded in a litter bin less than a mile away from The Boltons on March 9.
It was nowhere near as deadly, the source said, as the huge bomb the IRA planted in London's financial district on Feb. 9, which killed two people, injured many, and shattered the IRA's 17-month cease-fire.
The IRA seeks a break
Police said Wednesday's blast was preceded by a coded IRA message to a London news agency. It was detonated less than 24 hours before the House of Commons was due to debate a bill to pave the way for the election of a Northern Ireland peace assembly.
British members of Parliament say the IRA, by carrying out strictly limited attacks on soft targets, may be trying to pressure London to soften its line on conditions for Sinn Fein joining the peace process.
"I think it is no accident that this latest bomb has been placed on the eve of the debate about the peace assembly," said Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of Northern Ireland's mainly Catholic and moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party.
The British government is insisting that the IRA must accept the principles of nonviolence before Sinn Fein can be allowed to take part in all-party talks.
Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, said Tuesday that if London dropped these "preconditions" he would be willing to urge the IRA to restore the cease-fire that it brought to an end in February.
There is speculation that the Irish and British governments are working privately with Sinn Fein to hammer out a compromise.
Speaking during a visit to Prague, British Prime Minister John Major said yesterday that the bomb would "not derail the peace process."