By Senior correspondent
updated 7/7/2005 3:27:02 PM ET 2005-07-07T19:27:02

As the world awaits further details of Thursday’s London bombings, perhaps nowhere outside of London itself is there as much concern as in Ireland, both in the British ruled North and the independent Republic of Ireland to the south.

For decades, the sound of an explosion in London brought three specific letters to mind: IRA, the acronym of the provisional Irish Republican Army, which planted bombs and carried out assassinations for three decades aimed at forcing a British withdrawal from the North. Those bombings ended with a cease-fire in 1996 and, eventually, the Good Friday peace accords that have frayed but so far not broken since they were signed in 1998.

But even as early indications point away from the dormant IRA and toward al-Qaida or other Islamic extremists, the slightest prospect that the North’s fragile peace had come unglued was enough to rattle nerves across Ireland.

“I couldn’t believe it, it was like reliving a nightmare,” says Siobhan Callahan, a teacher in West Belfast, a Catholic district of Northern Ireland’s provincial capital. “I knew in my mind it probably wasn’t the provos, but my heart went right back to the bad old days.”

"Oh, it definitely crossed my mind," says Joan O'Sullivan, a journalist at RTE Irish television in Belfast. "But when you heard how it was so well-coordinated, and there was no warning, it didn't make sense."

Emphasizing al-Qaida
Perhaps sensing this concern, the Internet news site of Northern Ireland’s largest newspaper, The Belfast Telegraph, emphasized the lack of an IRA link in its breaking coverage, which early on bore the headline: “Blasts bear hallmarks of al-Qaida.”

Bertie Ahern, the prime minister of the Irish Republic, condemned the attacks without speculating on their origin. “This is a huge emergency. A terrible, sad day," he told The Irish Times after emerging from an audience with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. "What satisfaction do people get out of that? Will this mean that the G-8 leaders will make a different decision than they would have made yesterday? It won't."

The "bad old days" are something few in Northern Ireland want to revisit. The province, which remained a part of Britain when the south won self-government in 1920, has been split for centuries between a Protestant "ascendancy" transplanted from Britain by British monarchs to cement the loyalty of the island, and a Catholic minority embittered at being tossed off their land, and, more recently, being discriminated against in the job market.

Long history of bombings
The most recent round of sectarian warfare began in the late 1960s when Catholic civil rights marches were met with heavy handed police tactics that culminated in “Bloody Sunday” in January 1972, when British troops opened fire on a crowd of protesters and shot 14 of them dead. By that time, a group calling itself the provisional IRA — the “provos” in local parlance, had begun shooting British political officials and soldiers in Northern Ireland.

After Bloody Sunday, however, the IRA shifted tactics. By 1974, large bombs had killed dozens of civilians in Guilford, Woolwich and Birmingham on the British mainland, as well as many Protestant areas of the North. Retaliation bombings and killings began, carried out by Protestant paramilitary groups that later were found to have been fed intelligence by police in Northern Ireland.

The violence ebbed and flowed, though after the 1970s, sensing a backlash even among their stalwart supporters in Irish America, Canada and Australia, the IRA began a policy of issuing coded warnings to British authorities or journalists before bombs exploded, and often chose to mount such attacks on weekends or in early morning hours to minimize civilian casualties.

Still a threat in the '90s
Yet the IRA remained a constant threat well into the 1990s. Indeed, in 1996, only a few months before secret talks between the IRA and the British government led to a cease-fire, the IRA bombed an East London office complex, injuring 30. An even larger bomb planted under the Hammersmith Bridge on a Sunday night failed to explode because of a faulty detonator.

Even after the cease-fire, though, elements within the IRA, disgruntled with what they regarded as surrender, split away and continued to mount attacks. The most notorious of these splinter groups, calling itself Real IRA, planted a huge bomb in the center of the Northern Irish town of Omagh in 1998 that killed 29 people, the largest death toll ever from an Irish nationalist group’s attack.

By the time of the Omagh bombing, however, the provisional IRA had committed itself to disarmament talks and had been removed from the State Department's "terrorist group" list. Real IRA, however, is still regarded as active by authorities in Britain and the Irish Republic and is categorized as a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department.

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