IT IS HARD to discern any sign of hope in the massacre at Omagh. But at least this can be said: that there has come an end to certain illusions. Now we finally have to face the fact that the real obstacle to peace in Northern Ireland was never, as so many insisted it was, the intransigence of the Unionist population.
It was always a mark of the extraordinary political success of those who worked with an Armalite in one hand and an election manifesto in the other that they managed to establish in the outside world a general perception that violence was inevitable for as long as the Unionists refused to join the Nationalists in building a new political order. Find a political solution — so ran the received wisdom — and peace would follow.
The only people, apparently, who did not think so were the Ulster Unionists themselves, those difficult people (this was certainly the general view on the British mainland) who for so many years caused us all so much trouble by being so unreasonable.
And certainly, it seemed, on the face of it, to make sense: find a real political consensus, or at least an accommodation that most of the population of Northern Ireland would, however grudgingly, get behind, and the "men of violence" would magically find their support withering away and give up their arms.
This analysis was until very recently always rejected by Unionist politicians, who insisted that the real problem behind the violence in Northern Ireland was the existence of violent men who would never change, who were indifferent to the views of those they claimed to represent, and who therefore had to be forcibly dealt with.
And it is worth remembering that, even at the height of the euphoria over the Good Friday Agreement, when in an act of what most saw as extraordinary political courage David Trimble led his party into partnership with most of the Nationalist community, he was nevertheless unable to persuade more than a narrow majority of the Unionist population to endorse the Agreement.
Now, some Unionists who voted "Yes" are having second thoughts. Having sometimes hesitantly suspended their old habits of mind to give peace a chance, they will not readily set aside their mistrust a second time. And it is difficult to see how from the relative safety of London and the Home Counties English politicians will be able with a clear conscience to begin lecturing them once more about their intransigence until the perpetrators of this atrocity are behind bars without any hope of release as part of some new political deal.
What is remarkable, nevertheless, is how little sign there has been of a disposition to lose faith in the peace process. On the contrary: the Omagh massacre has been perceived as a sign of how deeply threatened by the Good Friday agreement the republican terrorist rump now feels. There has been one definite step forward: for the first time, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have issued an unqualified condemnation of this particular violent act. But it comes very late in the day. Even if they are sincere, events have moved on.
The point is that there was always an element within the Provisional IRA which was vengeful and intransigent and which was never going to give an inch towards recognising the legitimate aspirations of the Unionist population. They have shown that they are still a force to be reckoned with. They have also shown that no political solution short of a United Ireland will ever satisfy them.
What they want is the betrayal by a British government of every promise towards the Unionist population that successive administrations have ever made. That is what the Paisley Unionists fear, even now, that we are longing to do, if only we could find a pretext: and that is why the Drumcree Orange men this summer insisted on their right to march.
The fact is that there has always been an unreal divide — between those, on the one hand ,who claimed that the Ulster problem was an essentially political one, and those on the other who insisted that it was, on the contrary, simply a matter of security, a problem whose solution was to impose the Queen's peace, if necessary by force.
What now emerges is that it was never a matter of deciding which of these solutions was the correct one. Both are correct. Now we have (however imperfectly) a political solution, it must be given a chance. But it has no chance unless the security forces are allowed to do their work.
This need not now involve the kind of massive and counter-productive military invasion of Catholic communities, including house to house searches, that has taken place in the past. The names of those who continue to threaten the peace are undoubtedly known to the Provisional IRA and therefore to Gerry Adams.
Mr Adams has condemned their violence. He must now, therefore, prove his democratic credentials by delivering them up to the security forces. Furthermore, it is still the case that Sinn Fein-IRA (and let there be no more cant about these being two separate organisations) have never declared that for them the 'armed struggle' is at an end.
Let Mr Adams make that declaration without any further weasel words. And finally, and most importantly, let him announce without further delay the immediate surrender of all armaments and explosives held by the Provisional IRA.
Then his condemnation of the Massacre at Omagh will deserve to be taken seriously. But until then, Unionist politicians are right to treat him with suspicion and reserve.