London, June 17 (RFE/RL) - Hopes of a peace settlement in Northern Ireland have suffered a huge setback with the explosion of a bomb, thought to be the work of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) terrorist group, in the northern England city of Manchester.
The bomb was planted in a truck parked near a busy shopping center. It is believed to be the largest ever exploded on the British mainland. The blast injured more than 200 civilians, 16 of them severely. The bomb caused property damage estimated at $75 million.
Security officials said the blast would certainly have caused many deaths if police had not cleared 75,000 people from the area after a series of telephoned warnings believed to be from IRA activists.
Security experts say the attack was designed to secure a propaganda coup for the IRA which has waged a long terrorist campaign aimed at driving Britain out of Northern Ireland and securing a united Ireland.
The blast came as Britain is hosting the European soccer championships and happened just a few hours before Russia faced Germany in a Manchester stadium. Many German and some Russian fans were among the crowds evacuated before the truck blew apart.
The attack also came just at the hour when Queen Elizabeth, Britain's head of state, celebrated her official birthday by presiding over a military ceremony in London known as "trooping the colours."
The bomb appeared to mark a full-scale resumption by the IRA of their terrorist campaign after a period of hope prompted by a 17-month ceasefire observed by the IRA and rival protestant terror groups.
But the IRA shattered the ceasefire four months ago with a huge bomb that killed two people in London's docklands, and with Saturday's bomb, reinforced the message that violence is back on their agenda.
Politically, the timing of the bomb was important. It came just five days after the opening of all-party peace talks in Northern Ireland, chaired by former U.S. senator George Mitchell, representing President Bill Clinton who is pressing for peace in the province.
The talks got off to an awkward start when Sinn Fein (Shinn Fane), the political wing of the IRA, was excluded despite the fact that the party won 15 percent of the vote in special elections to the peace forum.
Both the Irish and British governments, who are jointly leading the peace efforts, said Sinn Fein will not be allowed to sit at the negotiating table without a pledge from the IRA to forever renounce violence.
Commentators say the bomb appeared to be a protest by the IRA leadership about the exclusion of Sinn Fein. They also say the blast undercuts the authority of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams. They say it suggests he has failed in his campaign to persuade IRA militants that political negotiations are the best hope for a Northern Ireland solution.
Those who follow the republican movement in its 27-year armed struggle to wrest the province from British rule say they now believe the IRA is either breaking into factions, or is back under the sway of the militants, or hard men, who are dedicated to the bullet and the bomb.
In addition, the bomb is likely to stiffen the resolve of the unionists -- the Protestant majority who want Northern Ireland to remain British -- not to have any dealings with the mainly Catholic Sinn Fein.
Protestant politicians say the bomb makes a mockery of elections to the peace forum three weeks ago when Sinn Fein campaigned under the slogan, A vote for Sinn Fein is a vote for peace.
For Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams the bombing is certainly a setback to his campaign to internationalise the Northern Ireland problem by involving the United States as closely as possible.
The United States has condemned the blast and, according to analysts, may be reluctant to receive Adams in Washington in future because of the IRA's renewed use of terror against civilian targets
In the final analysis, The London Guardian newspaper may have got it right when it said that the Manchester bomb is nothing other than the "deliberate burial of the 1993-96 Northern Ireland peace process."