Northern Ireland is ending 1996 on the brink of what the British and Irish governments and politicians of the province's two religious communities fear may be an all-out resumption of violence in the New Year.
The badly faltering peace process was dealt a double blow over the weekend, heralding what threatened to be a return to tit-for-tat attacks by both sides in the 26-year conflict.
On Dec. 20, Irish Republican Army (IRA) gunmen shot and wounded a police officer guarding a leading member of the Ulster Unionist Party. Then on Dec. 22, what was widely reported to be a Unionist paramilitary group retaliated by planting a bomb under the car of a prominent republican who was wounded in the blast.
Republicans, most of whom are Catholic, dislike and often resist British rule in Northern Ireland, while loyalists or unionists, many of whom are Protestants, prefer to remain linked to Britain.
Sir Patrick Mayhew, Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, condemned both attacks. He urged Unionist paramilitary units to "show restraint."
"The people of Northern Ireland are not going to give up in the face of the violence of the kind we are seeing now, and nor will any British government, of whatever color, give way to terrorism, from whatever quarter," Sir Patrick said.
British security experts indicated that they were alarmed by the nature of the Dec. 22 car bomb attack on Eddie Copeland, a leading IRA member. It had been meticulously planned, and the device used was more sophisticated than Unionist paramilitaries had employed in the past, a police source said.
The source said the incident that provoked the car bomb had been "typical of the IRA." Gunmen had entered a children's hospital where Nigel Dodds, a leading unionist, had been visiting his son. They fired shots at Mr. Dodds's police bodyguard who was wounded in the leg.
After the incident, a spokesman for the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), a Protestant paramilitary organization, said: "There will definitely be a response to this. The days of loyalists getting patted on the head and told they are good boys for keeping the cease-fire are over."
The two violent incidents came at the end of a year during which the London and Dublin governments have struggled to rescue the cease-fire declared in autumn 1994 by the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries.
The cease-fire was broken last February when the IRA planted a huge vehicle bomb in London. Despite this and later bombings, loyalist paramilitary groups, with the exception of one renegade group, kept their side of the cease-fire. The significance of Sunday's attack on Mr. Copeland is that it appears to herald the final snapping of Protestant forbearance.
The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a second loyalist paramilitary group, has been showing signs of impatience since Oct. 7, when the IRA attacked the British Army headquarters in Lisburn, killing one soldier and injuring many others. David Ervine, leader of the small Progressive Unionist Party, the UVF's political wing, said the attacks on Dec. 20 and 22 were "potentially the beginning of a spiral."
Ironically, the incidents happened as more than 400 republican and loyalist prisoners were released from jail to spend Christmas with their families. The inmates were being let out for between seven and 10 days. The Christmas release system has operated for many years and there has never been a case of a prisoner failing to return to confinement.