There is a special horror in the fact that IRA gunmen chose the weekend before Christmas to mount their cowardly attack in a children's hospital in Belfast, risking injury and death for young patients and certainly causing immense shock and fear. Cynical manipulation is part of the stock in trade of an organisation which has never had majority support among the nationalist people in this island, and the shabby excuse that on this occasion the target was not a leading member of Dr Ian Paisley's party but his police escort only confirms that when men turn to brutality they also lose their common sense.

On the scale of viciousness that the North in particular has had to endure for more than a quarter of a century there have been many worse incidents. The potential consequences, however, were made devastatingly clear by yesterday's counter attack in Ardoyne on Mr Eddie Copeland, almost certainly a UVF reprisal. Mr David Ervine, one of the most levelheaded of the politicians associated with the paramilitaries, spoke of a "spiral" of violence, and while the measured reaction of loyalists may take a few days to emerge, there is little reason to hope that they will reject the coat trailing challenge of the IRA and stay in the peace talks. After months of political stalemate and uncertainty the climate does not encourage optimism.

This undoubtedly fits the IRA's strategy ever since it breached its ceasefire at Canary Wharf last February. The bombing in Manchester and at Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn followed, but all three incidents fell short of a direct assault on loyalist interests. Whether the hospital attack, violating every notion of morality by threatening gravely sick children, was opportunistic or carefully planned, the effect is the same to increase pressure inside the paramilitary organisations to return to the tit for tat madness of random slaughter.

This is not the time, however, for the politicians to fade into the background. Pessimism and realism go hand in hand in the North in relation to the political outlook only because that is how the political system has worked. The alignment that creates a sense of emotional solidarity within the unionist and nationalist communities precludes any wider focus by the parties to mobilise support for peace and stability which the large majority of people in both communities wish for fervently. The formula gives a built in advantage to the warmongers, because they can set their deadly agendas, knowing that even if they do not speak for the people, they can safely discount the strength of popular opinion. They must now be proved wrong.

After nearly eight years of painstaking political exchanges and two years of relative peace, it will merely compound the tragedy if the political leaders are not able to join together in face of the current threat to show beyond doubt that they fear their political opponents less than the madmen on their own sides. Mr Nigel Dodds quite rightly denounced the hypocrisy and callousness of his would be assassins can he now make it plain that he believes that the vast mass of Catholics and nationalists in the North also repudiate them? That, however deep the divisions, it is only politics, and not force, that can resolve them?

Most people throughout this island are outraged at Friday night's attack, and share a common sense of anger mixed with profound relief that Mr Dodds and his family have not, apparently, suffered any lasting harm. But there is no way to channel solidarity if the political system fails. Where is the necessary leadership?