The massive bomb that ripped through a shopping center in Manchester, England, Saturday, injuring more than 200 people, shows that a deep division has opened within the Irish republican movement, British government sources and independent analysts say.
The bombing cast a heavy shadow over the Northern Ireland peace talks, which the British government said yesterday would continue as planned.
The blast, which came only five days after the talks opened in the Northern Ireland capital of Belfast, was the work of a hard-line Irish Republican Army (IRA) group that rejects the leadership of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, an official London-based security source says.
The source says active IRA units possess an estimated three tons of Semtex plastic high explosive and hundreds of rifles in secret hiding places. They also retain a network of operational cells capable of carrying out high-profile terrorist attacks on the British mainland.
The bomb, planted in a van in the center of huge Arndale shopping mall in Manchester, a city in northern England, was detonated in midmorning with thousands of shoppers nearby. It appeared to offer proof that while attempts move ahead to negotiate a peace settlement, one wing of the IRA is furthering its own violent agenda.
The bomb exploded as Manchester was preparing for an international soccer game, part of the Euro 96 series. Police said the match would go ahead as planned. Thousands of overseas soccer fans were arriving in Manchester when the bomb exploded, scattering broken glass over a wide area and shattering windows up to a mile away.
The blast tore off a 60-yard stretch of the shopping center's faade, causing damage estimated at $75 million. It was swiftly condemned by British Prime Minister John Major as "almost certainly the work of the IRA."
The IRA did not immediately claim responsibility. But an hour before the blast a local TV station received a warning using a code word identified with the IRA.
The attack came on the eve of Father's Day, when many people were out shopping, and on the official 70th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II. The queen issued a statement saying she was "shocked and deeply saddened." Irish President Mary Robinson, visiting Washington, said the attack left her "angry and numbed."
"This kind of act has nothing to do with Irishness," she said.
Police at the scene said the bomb appeared to be similar to one that exploded in London's Docklands on Feb. 9, breaking a 17-month IRA cease-fire.
Clear evidence of a split within the IRA emerged Saturday when the organization admitted that the murder of a policeman in Adare, County Limerick, 10 days earlier was "not authorized" and "contrary to orders."
Mary Holland, a longtime analyst of Irish affairs, says it is likely that the IRA leaders in Northern Ireland are backing Mr. Adams, but "groups of dissidents, drawn from southwest Ireland" and border areas "remain determined to pursue a campaign of violence to achieve their objectives."
Ms. Holland says there is an argument among "hard-liners" in the top ranks of the IRA who believe that "a negotiated settlement will happen eventually" but that for that to happen the British government "needs periodic nudges."
Irish newspapers yesterday minced few words in pinning the blame for the attack on a violent element in the IRA.
The Dublin-based Sunday Tribune said "Sinn Fein and the IRA cannot be trusted at all," adding: "Gerry Adams's announcement that Sinn Fein accepted the Mitchell principles [for peace and reconciliation] must stand as a sham and a lie." Dublin's Sunday Independent suggested in an editorial that the London and Manchester bombs were the work of "a group acting outside the [IRA] leadership's control."
Former US Sen. George Mitchell, chairman of the Northern Ireland talks, said yesterday that he "strongly and unequivocally" condemned the bombing, calling it "a reprehensible act."
Mr. Mitchell's aides said he was determined to go ahead with peace talks that opened amid acrimony June 10 and were marred by the withdrawal of radical Unionists, who said they could not accept Mitchell as chairman.
Adams, who has been demanding to be allowed to take part in the Belfast peace talks, declined to issue an outright condemnation of the bombing. He said: "If this explosion is linked to the conflict here in Ireland, obviously I regret it, and I sympathize with those who have been injured."
Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring said Sunday that it "may be necessary to exclude Sinn Fein completely from the peace process," adding that "at this stage we don't know who we're dealing with."