N. Ireland's Peace Effort

A week or so before a suspected Irish Republican Army bomb exploded in a shopping center in Manchester, England - and shortly before peace talks began in Belfast, Northern Ireland - a US news organization published an interview with Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein. Mr. Adams said, "What I want is to be part of whatever possibility there is of getting people to sit around a table and thrash it out."

The likelihood of that happening now is remote. Sinn Fein's failure to condemn the Manchester bombing, and the admitted involvement of the IRA in the shooting death of a police detective during a robbery attempt in western Ireland, have severely - perhaps irrevocably - damaged the credibility of Adams and his party.

These events also have strengthened the resolve of the unionists, who want Northern Ireland to remain part of Britain, that Sinn Fein not be allowed to sit at the peace table. Earlier this month the question was whether Sinn Fein and the IRA would be able to maneuver their way to the talks without an IRA cease-fire. Now it's doubtful that even a cease-fire would be enough to persuade most unionist groups to talk with Sinn Fein.

If the bombing in Manchester was meant to be a convincing political statement, it badly misfired. It was an unjustifiable act of terrorism, and may have undermined nationalist support among the general public in Northern Ireland. Though Sinn Fein won 15 percent of the vote in elections for representation at the peace talks, it's unlikely that would happen again. The vote seemed as much a protest as a vote of support for Sinn Fein's point of view. Whatever the motives, it was a vote for peace, not for terror.

In the coming weeks and months, it will be the IRA's actions that will count. It's up to the IRA to commit to peace with a cease-fire and implementation of former US Sen. George Mitchell's conditions for surrendering weapons so that Sinn Fein can take part in talks. It's also imperative for Protestant paramilitaries, who so far have maintained their cease-fire, not to succumb to intense pressure to retaliate. If they do, the situation in Northern Ireland will deteriorate.

The talks in Belfast have been beset by difficulties from the start, and the bombing in Manchester is widely seen as one of the more devastating setbacks to Northern Ireland's peace effort. But it doesn't mean an end to the possibility for peace. As Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring said, the process of negotiation must not be blown off course by extremists on either side.

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