Adams's condemnation further isolates dissidents
`I condemn it without any equivocation whatsoever." - Gerry Adams, Saturday August 15th, 1998. Just a few hours after republican dissidents had wrecked scores of lives at Omagh, Co Tyrone, the depth of the division in what was once the most publicly united paramilitary movement of modern times became crystal clear.
Just as loyalists defeated their own cause at Drumcree by the killings of the three Quinn children in a firebomb attack on their house, so the dissident republicans may find they have inflicted a heavy defeat on their own cause at Omagh.
First, while the dissidents aim to keep the republican movement out of the political structures established by the Belfast Agreement, the bomb has pushed Sinn Fein in the opposite direction. It gave Sinn Fein an opportunity to condemn a republican atrocity for the first time in 30 years of violence, thus moving it perceptibly closer to the indication required by the Ulster Unionist Party that the IRA war is over.
Second, the sheer scale of the horror inflicted has isolated the dissidents even more than before within their community. The weekend atmosphere was one in which Sinn Fein's unequivocal condemnation was much more reflective of the views of the mainstream republican community than the actions of the bombers.
Third, with both the Irish and British governments talking about measures to "crush" the dissidents, they may yet find they have created the atmosphere in which harsh security measures will, for the first time, have real cross-community support.
Sinn Fein took virtually no time to formulate a most decisive response to the bombing. Never before had the word "condemn" crossed the lips of Mr Adams, even after atrocities which he undoubtedly wished had not happened. However, it took just a few hours on Saturday for him to use the word, to state that he was using it without equivocation and to announce he was breaking off a holiday to return to Belfast.
When Sinn Fein bought into the Belfast Agreement last April, it was left with little room for equivocation on the issue of violence. Saturday's bomb left it with none. Even before the full scale of the injury and death was known, Mr Martin McGuinness was criticising those responsible in robust language.
"This appalling act was carried out by those opposed to the peace process," he said in a statement. "It is designed to wreck the process and everyone should work to ensure the peace process continues. I call on whatever group was responsible to stop immediately. Those responsible are aligning themselves with the forces opposed to a democratic settlement of the conflict here."
The sharpness and unequivocal nature of the Sinn Fein response was noted by unionists. In return, the response of the UUP leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland, Mr David Trimble, also indicated an unshaken commitment to making the new political structures in Northern Ireland work.
Mr Trimble did not comment directly on Mr Adams's statement, but urged him to go a step further. "The words I want to hear is that he has to tell people that the war is over and the time has come for people to lay down arms. No more ifs and buts, no more little verbal word games and no more nods and winks."
He said yesterday that he wondered would the bombing have happened at all "had the leaders of the republican movement several months ago had the courage to tell that movement that this process necessarily involves the ending of their campaign . . . that the war is over and the time had come to lay down their arms instead of engaging in ambiguities and letting people think, like the perpetrators of this action, that they could have it both ways".
In language that appeared to seek to engage with the broad republican community rather than condemn it, Mr Trimble suggested that republicans "reflect on the quality of the leadership it has been offering and think again".
This autumn the political parties have to work out how to set up the Northern Ireland executive, and whether that executive can include Sinn Fein members. A political impasse remains over the UUP's demand that the IRA give an unequivocal indication that its war is over before Sinn Fein members take seats in the executive. The IRA has so far refused to give the UUP what it is looking for.
However, the pattern whereby political progress is made on the back of awful atrocities could yet repeat itself. The killing of the Quinn children led to an unprecedented display of unity and common purpose between Mr Trimble and his Deputy Chief Minister, Mr Seamus Mallon. It led a number of key Orange Order chaplains and members to break away from the common Orange stance on the Garvaghy Road and to state that no victory over a march route was worth such barbarity.
Whether Omagh will create the opportunity for more dramatic developments within the republican movement will emerge in the coming days. Mr Adams added yesterday to his initial statement of condemnation, calling on Mr Trimble and Mr Mallon to call the leaders of the political parties together to discuss the situation. Of course Mr Trimble is not going to sit down with Mr Adams this week to discuss the security situation in Northern Ireland. But there are clear indications in the statements of Mr Trimble and Mr Adams that both men are actively seeking to use the Omagh bombing to help them out of the present political impasse.
It is quite likely therefore to turn out to have been a very bad weekend for those seeking to wreck the Belfast Agreement. In terms of the wrecking of ordinary people's lives, however, Northern Ireland has never seen a worse weekend.