FOR many months Northern Ireland's political and paramilitary activists have experienced something close to dialogue overload, with a surfeit of conferences and seminars endlessly chewing over the way ahead for the peace process.
Suddenly, this grim weekend, the question is not how Northern Ireland's politics or policing or economy is to be managed in future, but whether anything can be salvaged from the wreckage. The prospect now seems to be not one of arduous constitution-building, but rather of an almost unthinkable regression to the dark ages of the troubles. Those who believed that the weight of local and international opinion would ensure the peace lasted have had their theories, and many of their hopes, dashed.
If there is one succinct explanation of why the violence broke out again, it may be that, for the republican movement, all those conferences have not represented the right sort of dialogue. There have been countless meetings and contacts with other nationalists and, increasingly, with Protestant and Unionist elements, but in republican eyes they were denied what really mattered to them: official, inclusive talks on the future, negotiating with the British government and other parties.
Seventeen months after the IRA cessation of August 1994, the IRA concluded that John Major had no immediate intention of seriously engaging with republicans at the conference table. Having reached that conclusion, the IRA then resumed its traditional business of inflicting destruction and of slicing open Londoners' faces with flying glass.
It is easy enough to lay out the strategic thinking of the IRA in this way, and to outline how the general psychology of the republican movement could have led to Friday night's bomb - growing frustration in the ranks, a suspicion that Major was intent on humiliating them rather than doing business with them, on bowing to Unionist pressure, on attempting to turn a ceasefire into a surrender.
What is frankly incomprehensible, however, is how republican leaders can imagine that bombing would change the British government's mind and propel it to the conference table. The logic of the bomb is not that John Major will now call all-party talks; it is that he will refuse to negotiate under such duress, and will have the support of Dublin, Washington and almost everyone else in refusing to do so.
To explain why the ceasefire ended it is necessary first to review how and why it started. Since the early 1970s, the IRA had waged a fierce campaign to drive the British out, but from the late 1980s republican leaders, headed by Gerry Adams, evolved a more thoughtful approach. Internal debate led them to conclude that the nature of the problem went beyond the old simplicities of believing that "Brits out" was the answer to all Ireland's problems. They came to recognise that Protestants and Unionists were not merely British puppets, but had concerns, and rights, of their own.
They pondered on a world changed by the European Union and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. They looked at the Irish Republic and found a state which, in modernising itself, had abandoned physical-force republicanism in favour of post-nationalist Europeanism. They looked at Britain itself, and saw a country which looked less and less like a colonial power and more and more as though it would be frankly relieved to be rid of the burden of Northern Ireland.
They looked back over all the years of violence, and the tremendous energy and sacrifices they had made. They noted that, while the British government had secretly been in touch with them between 1990 and 1993, the contacts had taken the form of verbal fencing rather than negotiations.
And the thought grew that there might be another way. For years, Adams and his associates had challenged those who condemned republican violence to put forward an alternative way of working towards their ends. …