Monstrous mayhem was the result of thought and calculation
A couple of years ago in Belfast, at a time when the Sinn Fein leadership was coming under sustained attack from politicians and commentators in the South, a wise republican said to me that such people would be on their knees from dawn to nightfall praying for the intentions of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, if they could just catch a fleeting glimpse of the alternative.
This week, the blackest in a long time, we have a full frontal view of that alternative. Now we observe what has been the subtext of Sinn Fein anxieties, expressed in such moments of revelation as the occasional dropping of Gerry Adams's normally cool exterior. Here we saw the handiwork of the dregs of the republican movement, a small unrepresentative faction which is incapable of change or compromise or any degree of acceptance of the rejection of its views and objectives.
What happened in Omagh on Saturday has confronted us with the starkness of the question as to whether anything can redeem or heal such actions, never mind explain them. To be quite frank about it, it makes me pause to interrogate my own views of this situation. Can I share even a scintilla of the beliefs of those who planted this bomb in Omagh and remain a member of the hu man family? I don't know. It is a question, perhaps, for another day, but it is one that cannot be shirked indefinitely.
It would be easy to despair, to decide that the peace process cannot be rescued from this monstrous atrocity, but such thinking, however understandable, must not be allowed to survive the present week of grief and doubt. There is only one peace process and it is indivisible and irreplacable.
Omagh has rendered us numb. It was an act of awfulness beyond words. Even for all that it is the worst atrocity in the history of the Troubles, it seems farfetched to suggest that it represents an entirely new development in Northern Ireland, but this may in truth be the case. Other groupings at other times have done appalling, unspeakable things, but in the past such deeds were characterised by attempts to justify them on the basis of political grievance and some degree of grassroots support.
What distinguishes this bombing from practically everything which has preceded it is the fact that, however mistaken or misguided such justification might have been thought in the past, there is no such context this time.
This action flies in the face of the first genuine effort to establish a cross-community solution, one which had the unanimous endorsement from the community to which the perpetrators of this vile deed claim to belong. It follows immediately on the people of Northern Ireland stating in unequivocal terms that they do not wish the killing to go on. And that includes those who have, albeit often silently and passively, acquiesced in the use of violence in pursuit of their grievances,
It is hardly accidental, then, that this bomb was directed, not at the security forces, nor even at the unionist community, but at the wider community of the North. The message of this bomb, placed in the midst of a cross-community peace festival, was that attempts at reconciliation are not to be entertained. It was saying to those who voted Yes to the Belfast Agreement that they had come up with the wrong answer, and that if politics or reason cannot persuade them to recant, something else can, and that something is fear.
There is a tendency at a moment like this to put such actions down to mindlessness, to a love of violence for its own sake. This, though understandable, would be a mistake. The people who created the monstrous mayhem in Omagh on Saturday may very well have shut their hearts and minds away from empathy with their fellow human beings, but that does not mean that their actions are not the result of thought and calculation. This was truly as close as we have seen here to violence without a why.
To even the most cursory external observer of republicanism, it must seem like the action of people with a death-wish for the cause they purport to represent. At some level, perhaps it was an act of pique by a grouping which has not succeeded in attracting even the minimum of public support for its ideas or objectives. But at another, it was surely an action taken in anticipation of at least some measure of the consequences which followed and was therefore based on the notion that, whatever the rhetoric of the time may hold, violence, including random and indiscriminate violence, is capable of generating a political payoff.
The possibility that this is how the planters of the Omagh bomb were thinking might suggest that we are dealing here with people who have lost all political reason. Surely they must know that the limits of the perverted usefulness of physical force have been reached and exceeded. It is not, after all, as if the IRA had not already let the throttle on the engine of paramilitarism out to its limit and revved it for all it was worth. After 30 years of conflict, the vast majority of those who had pushed their case through armed struggle have laid down their weapons and said "Enough".
However, given the pattern of reaction in the North, there may be a certain twisted logic in the thinking behind this bomb which, ironically, some of those who most despise and oppose its cowardly planters may yet help to vindicate. I do believe that there was a clear intention behind this action, which related not simply to destroying the peace process, but to destroying it by having Sinn Fein driven from it - in the hope of sending Northern Ireland back into the spiral of reaction from which it has so recently emerged.
It was an attempt to drive firmly back in place the wedge between the nationalist and unionist communities loosened by the peace process, and to incite unionist and loyalist retaliation of every conceivable shape and form. The only way in which this appalling deed will fail to achieve these perverted ambitions will be if all of those whose responses have been anticipated refuse to behave according to type. What is necessary is that loyalists and unionists, as well as their supporters in the Republic and the powers-that-be in London, decline to respond in the manner anticipated by those who planted this bomb.
Yes, the so-called "mainstream" republican leadership has a responsibility now to help clean up the poison which seeps from the footprints of armed republicanism through recent history. The rest of us have a duty to assist and support those elements which have turned their backs on violence and to acknowledge the extent of their achievement so far.
The Sinn Fein leadership has spent 15 years preparing for a moment such as this, to ensure that the resolve to go on in peace would not turn out as meaningless and futile as the decisions which attended previous splits in the republican movement, where the politically minded moved into the constitutional centre and most of the gun men stayed behind. One of the few signs of hope arising from this catastrophe is that we have passed the time when this remained a serious danger.