The first weekend in February saw the annual conference of Sinn Fein at Mansion House, the residence of the lord mayor of Dublin. Sinn Fein is the above-ground political wing of the Irish Republican movement of which the Irish Republican Army is the illegal military wing. Sinn Fein has hit a high above 10 percent of the vote in Northern Ireland and about 3 percent in the Irish Republic. Its president, Gerry Adams, was elected to the British House of Commons from West Belfast but refused to take his seat.
At the conference, which was gloomy and frustrated, Mr. Adams said he had written a peace proposal to British Prime Minister John Major. The press reported rumors that the IRA would call a permanent cease-fire to allow Sinn Fein to play a more constructive political role. Movement spokesmen heatedly denied that a cease-fire was contemplated.
But Sinn Fein did give the appearance of introspection and of harboring dissent. Apologists were saying that every movement has its doves. Some observers detected a desire by part or all of Sinn Fein to distance itself from the IRA, to have better credibility as a political movement while the guns still blast away and kidnap in Northern Ireland.
That was the IRA context in which gunmen launched a mortar attack on the prime minister to whom Mr. Adams had written, and then placed bombs in two London railroad stations with vague warnings designed to bring London rail and Heathrow Airport to a standstill.
An act of terrorism is a publicity stunt. It's no good if no one knows. A bomb gets more attention in London than in Belfast. The IRA placed bombs in public places in the British capital in the 1970s, and desisted after the publicity was bad. The new bomb wave, probably the work of one or two small cells, is a reversion to past practice and not a new torment. One of these bombs is like an Iraqi Scud: It may come near no legitimate military or political target but it touches the lives of multitudes.
Whatever internal discussions the IRA had, the bombers have scuttled the negotiating process Mr. Adams invited. Sinn Fein cannot credibly distance itself from the IRA; it has no meaning apart from that relationship. The Irish Republican movement worried about its marginality in Irish life before the conference. The bombs in Victoria and Paddington stations in London only increased that marginality.