A bomb exploded in a small town near Belfast on Tuesday, disrupting the Northern Ireland peace talks that got under way on Monday with the entry of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast, which damaged a police station and houses in the town of Markethill, 25 miles west of here. No one was injured.
Protestant political leaders, who on Monday seemed to be on the verge of entering the talks, accused the IRA of setting off the bomb and now appeared likely to delay joining the negotiations.
The overwhelmingly Roman Catholic IRA denied that it was behind the attack.
Officials and experts said the bomb was probably placed by a splinter group that is not observing the IRA cease-fire, which was restored on July 20. The intent would be to embarrass Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, who they feel is too moderate.
Sinn Fein was admitted to the talks after the IRA renewed its cease-fire, which was then judged genuine by the British government, and after pledging to adhere to principles of nonviolence.
The IRA, while supporting the political action of Sinn Fein, indicated clearly last week that it was not bound by the non-violence pledge.
David Trimble, head of the Ulster Unionist Party, the largest party in this predominantly Protestant British province, accused the IRA in the blast. “The overwhelming probability,” he said, was that “there’s IRA involvement.”
Referring to Mo Mowlam, the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, he added, “The secretary of state should now seriously reconsider Sinn Fein’s participation.” Trimble also called on the chairman of the peace talks, former Sen. George Mitchell, to expel Sinn Fein.
Mowlam said the attack was “pointless terrorism” and “may well have been a deliberate attempt to sabotage the talks process.”
Mitchell also denounced the bombing. A statement issued by his office said: “It is obviously an effort to blow up not just a police station but also the talks process. It cannot be permitted to succeed. The participants to these talks are determined to make them work.”
But a decision to expel Sinn Fein, which would have to come from the British and Irish governments, was considered unlikely. It would take direct evidence of IRA involvement. Moreover, the British and Irish governments have worked for three years to bring Sinn Fein and the Protestant parties together, and without Sinn Fein, the talks would have virtually no chance of producing an agreement.
Still, the bombing provided Trimble and other Protestant leaders with a reason to delay their own entry. On Monday, Trimble said he wanted to join the talks “as soon as possible,” and before the bomb went off at noon, there were reports that he would begin taking part Tuesday or today.
Although that prospect now seems delayed, most officials felt that when the furor has subsided, the Ulster Unionists and two smaller Protestant parties with links to paramilitaries would take their places at the negotiating table. Five parties, including Sinn Fein, are already there.
Adams said the Protestant leaders were using the bomb as a pretext not to face him and his party across the negotiating table.
David Ervine, the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, which has links to the Ulster Volunteer Force, a Protestant paramilitary group, made it clear that he still expected to join the talks.
“I don’t think you can make any decisions on the talks oblivious to this bombing,” he said. “But I’m not convinced it will change our minds on anything. It’s sad to say, but it was to be expected.”
The Loyalist Volunteer Force, a small Protestant splinter group that is not observing the cease-fire that Ervine’s allies are holding, threatened to retaliate against Catholics in response to the bombing.
Many officials, including Catholics, said they believed that the bombing was the work of either the Continuity Army Council or the Irish National Liberation Army, neither of which are observing the IRA cease-fire. Many in the groups do not trust Adams because they feel that he might agree to a deal that does not guarantee a united Ireland free of British control.