THE CAR BOMB that exploded Saturday in the rural market town of Omagh in Northern Ireland was terrorism on the scale of the Nairobi or Oklahoma City bombings.
With 28 deaths and 220 wounded, this dreadful event proved more bloody than the incident known as Bloody Sunday in Londonderry in 1972.
The people in Northern Ireland, who voted for a political settlement based on shared stakes in civil society, always expected that the peace process would be challenged. Now extremists have done exactly as predicted.
Historically, the politics of the last atrocity always gives terrorists the power to provoke their counterparts to respond. To make the democratic choice for peace succeed, Protestant unionist and Catholic nationalist leaders must refuse to be manipulated.
If the assumption of the Irish Republic government and police is correct, a splinter of the IRA opposed to the political settlement is responsible for the bombing.
The "Real IRA" is tiny, concentrated in an Irish Republic town on the main road from Belfast to Dublin, with a few adherents near Omagh. It includes experienced bomb-makers. Its leader controlled the cache of explosives the IRA refused to destroy.
If this attribution is correct, a handful of dissidents from the Catholic community, created the terror. Omagh is a largely Catholic town, in which Sinn Fein is politically strong. The victims included Protestants and Catholics alike, weekend visitors from the Irish Republic and even a party of Spanish school children.
The result was indeed to unite almost all the people of Ireland -- but in grief and in outrage against the murderers.
The political goal of the atrocity, to the extent there is one, would be to make the position of Gerry Adams, the durable Sinn Fein-IRA leader who chose the political path, untenable.
Though Mr. Adams went past previous language in using the word "condemn," his disapproval of the bombing begs the issue whether he would help police move against the murderers and munitions. His standing in the Republican movement would vanish if he did; his legitimacy among constitutional politicians could disappear if he did not.
The persistence of terrorism combined with Mr. Adams' role in the political process might induce distrustful Unionists in the Protestant community to work to destroy the peace accord, as in 1974. The terrorists certainly hope so. They would have won again.
The elected participants in the political process see the traps set for them by terrorists, of course. But the Northern Irish tradition has been not to let that deter them from falling in.
Vigorous action by the British and Irish Republic governments is necessary and promised. At this moment, almost any step taken against the terrorists, assuming they were correctly identified, would meet approval from almost all the people in Ireland.
Pub Date: 8/18/98