AN UNLIKELY TERRORIST
THE DESIRE TO LASH OUT AT BRITISH RULE IS BORN IN THE GRIM REALITY OF LIFE IN WEST BELFAST
It was a life apparently untouched by the violence and hatred of Northern Ireland. As a young girl growing up in Andersons-town, a middle-class Catholic area of West Belfast, Mairead Farrell played field hockey and basketball and was a keen swimmer. She was a voracious reader, she loved dancing—and at one stage she appeared as a canary in the annual students’ play at Rathmore, the convent school which she attended. She was, her mother recalled last week, a bright girl who was “full of life.” But that life came to a sudden, brutal end on a sunny street in Gibraltar in the late afternoon of March 6. Three days after her 31st birthday,
Farrell and two other members of the IRA were shot to death by members of the British army regiment that specializes in antiterrorist operations—the secretive Special Air Service (SAS).
In a packed Gibraltar courtroom last week, H the SAS soldiers told a coroner’s inquest how o they stalked Farrell and her companions, con£ vinced that they were plotting to explode a car s bomb in the British colony. And, their identities protected by heavy curtains around the witness box, the soldiers described in clinical detail how each of the IRA members died. In Farrell’s case, death came instantly from two bullets in the head and three in the back, which, in the words of the pathologist who examined her body, “pulped her heart and liver.”
For many Britons, sickened by two decades of civil strife in Northern Ireland, Farrell, Sean Savage and Daniel McCann got exactly what they deserved. All three were committed IRA activists on what the organization calls “active service,” prepared to bomb or kill to force Britain to withdraw its troops from Ulster. The Sun, a London tabloid read by more than four million people each day, labelled them “Dogs of war who had to die.” But in many homes in the staunchly republican neighborhoods of West Belfast, Farrell and her companions are three more martyrs in the centuries-old cause of Irish nationalism. Those starkly opposed perceptions fuel a continuous cycle of violence, revenge and more violence—a deadly treadmill from which Northern Ireland’s longsuffering people find no escape.
There was no relief last week. While details of the six-month-old Gibraltar killings unfolded in court, the IRA struck twice more. Just after 6 a.m. last Monday, it bombed the home of Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, head of Northern Ireland’s civil service. Bloomfield and his family survived the attack unharmed—but it sent a chilling signal that the IRA will continue to consider virtually all government officials legitimate targets for attack.
At 7:14 p.m. the same day, a powerful car bomb rocked the heart of downtown Belfast. Seventeen people were hurt, one of them seriously, and another clear message was sent: the IRA is resuming its campaign of bombing commercial targets to disrupt the city’s normal life. The British government is considering tougher new security measures and, by ambushing suspected IRA activists, has already provoked charges that it is employing a “shoot to kill” policy. But after 19 years of what the IRA calls its current “armed struggle,” it will plainly not let up.
In many ways, Mairead Farrell was not a typical member of the IRA. The great majority of the IRA’s volunteers are young men with little formal education. Usually they come from the poorest, grittiest streets of West Belfast’s Catholic neighborhoods—places such as the Falls and Ballymurphy. There, among the bleak brick row houses and seedy public-housing estates, curb stones are painted in the orange, white and green of the Irish republican flag, and anti-British graffiti cover the walls. For the British army and the police of the mainly
Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary, the area is virtually enemy territory; police stations, surrounded by 30-foot walls topped by barbed wire, resemble outposts in an alien and hostile land.
Farrell was bom in the Falls, but her family soon moved to a comfortable, two-storey brick home in middle-class Andersonstown. Her father, Daniel, and her mother, also named Mairead, ran a hardware store and a children’s clothing shop on Springfield Road, one of West Belfast’s main shopping streets, until they retired last year. The Farrells raised she children, Mairead and five boys, and were relatively well-off. But like many Catholic families, the Farrells had an old tradition of republican political activity. Mairead Farrell’s maternal grandfather, John Gaffney, was interned by the British during Ireland’s struggle for independence in the early 1920s and later became a senator in the new Irish Free State.
Farrell’s 67-year-old mother pointed to that heritage last week as she tried to ex-
plain why her well-educated daughter was prepared to take up arms. Sitting in the cozy parlor of the family home, crowded with photographs and mementoes of her daughter, Farrell spoke softly but defiantly about the British army in Northern Ireland. “We all have that terrible detestation of people who are harassing you,” she said, “especially when they’re not Irish.” She recalled that her daughter, like many other Catholics, had seen neighbors arrested or taunted by Loyalist crowds. “All that has a tremendous effect on young people,” she said.
But of all the Farrells’ children, only Mairead became active in the IRA, joining immediately after leaving school at 18 in 1975. Within 10 months, she was arrested after she and two other IRA members planted a bomb in a hotel just outside Belfast. No one was hurt, but Farrell was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment in Armagh jail. Inside, she became the leader of IRA women prisoners and took part in the group’s so-called dirty protest. As part of their campaign to be treated as political prisoners, the inmates refused to wash or allow their cells to be cleaned for as THE IRA HAS EVOLVED INTO A HIGHLY SOPHISTICATED MACHINE
long as three years. They smeared the walls with excrement and lived in filth.
In 1980, Farrell and two other women prisoners went on a hunger strike. They eventually called it off just six days before Christmas—in 19 days Mairead had lost more than 25 lb. “It was a terrible strain,” her mother recalled last week. “Knowing her, I knew that if it went to the point of dying, Mairead was prepared to do it.” Ten male prisoners did starve themselves to death in 1981.
But Farrell’s family did not try to persuade her to stop. “Those decisions had to be her own,” her mother said.
During her last few years in jail, Farrell began studying economics and politics.
And when she was finally released in September,
1986—after serving IOV2 years—she enrolled at Queen’s University at Belfast. At the same time, she resumed her IRA activity.
Last March 3, she told her mother that she was going to Dublin the next day. Instead, she left for Gibraltar, where, three days later, she died. A few weeks before, the younger Farrell had told an interviewer that she had no illusions about where her activism would lead. “You have to be realistic,” she said. “You realize that, ultimately, you’re either going to be dead or end up in jail. You’re not going to run forever.”
The modern organization that Farrell lived for—and ultimately died for—has evolved over the past two decades into a highly sophisticated and tightly organized machine. In the early 1970s, IRA operations were often amateurish; its leaders had difficulty raising money and buying weapons to wage an effective campaign against British rule. But security officials in Northern Ireland now describe the IRA as a well-entrenched force with an operating budget of between $8 million and $12 million a year. At its core is a small number of people—as few as 50 or 60—who run day-to-day operations and plan military strategy. A slightly larger number, perhaps 150 or 200, are said to be on “active ser-
vice”—prepared to attack troops, police or other designated targets. At the top is a seven-member “army council” based in Dublin; active members are organized into cells of four to 10 members.
Several sources provide the funding, police
say. A relatively small amount—roughly $300,000 a year—is raised among sympathetic Irish-Americans by the Irish Northern Aid Committee, or Noraid. According to some estimates, roughly $50,000 is also raised annually by IRA supporters in Canada. Apart from that, some of the IRA’s money comes from armed robberies, mainly in the Republic of Ireland, and some is raised through sophisticated tax-fraud schemes and protection money paid by businessmen in order to avoid harassment. But for the past several years, according to police officials, the IRA has relied mainly on legitimate business fronts. It owns real estate firms, taxi companies, restaurants and even video stores. And it operates a network of about two dozen drinking clubs equipped with profitable gambling machines. Altogether, security officials estimate, legitimate business now provides the IRA
with about half the money it needs each year.
Much of the money is spent on running the IRA’s military operations, including weekly payments of about $40 to active members. Similar payments also go to families of IRA members in prison, and large amounts are used to finance the activities and publications of Sinn Fein, the group’s political wing. In the past, the organization needed large amounts of money to buy weapons, but that changed dramatically in the mid-1980s when Libya began to give the IRA enormous quantities of sophisticated arms—free of charge.
Ulster police and British army intelligence sources say that at least four shiploads of arms were brought into Ireland before another load was seized last October from a ship off the French coast. A senior police officer conceded last week that IRA members are now better armed than ever. “They have more weapons than they know what to do with,” he said. “We are under no illusions: they are a very dangerous enemy.”
ife in the IRA offers few obvious rewards. Aside from the constant dangers of arrest, imprisonment and death, members lead plain working-class lives among the people on whose behalf they claim to act. In a 1987 book, The Provisional IRA, authors Patrick Bishop and Eamonn Mallie say that the Green Book, the IRA’s organizational manual, discourages drinking and unorthodox marital arrangements. With those restrictions, most members join out of political idealism or a desire to strike back at authorities. Brian Feeney, a city councillor for a tough republican area of North Belfast and a member of the moderate Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party, says that he knows many IRA members well. He added, “They’re not in the main the psychopaths they’re depicted to be—although one or two are—but join up to hit back at the violence of policemen or soldiers who have given them or their areas a bad time, to hit back at a society which can’t give them a job because of their religion, which treats them as a second-class citizen.”
But, adds Feeney, after nearly 20 years of fighting and dying, the armed struggle may have become an end in itself for many IRA members. “How they do it defeats me,” he said. “They have no family life worth living, they’re in and out of jail and they could always be killed. They have a slogan in Irish, ‘Tiocfaidh àr Ta,’ which means ‘Our day will come.’ They think that by hitting back, they’ll speed that day—but the problem is that, for many, hitting back has become a way of life. They know nothing else.”
A HISTORICAL HATRED ROOTED IN ULSTER'S RELIGIOUS DIFFERENCES
The desire to hit back is born in the streets of West Belfast, where there is little evidence of the new prosperity that has led the city’s business leaders to declare this year that Belfast is booming once more. New shops and pubs have been built on sites bombed out during the mid-1970s, and civic leaders describe a strip of restaurants and clubs on Great Victoria Street as the “Golden Mile.” All that, however, is on the east side of the motorway that slices the city in half. On the other side, in both Catholic and Protestant working-class neighborhoods, there is still deep depression.
One of the meanest areas is a corner of the Falls called Divis Flats, a warren of crumbling public-housing units ravaged by crime and despair—and an unemployment rate of 85 per cent.
Dirty children play amid garbage and set fires against abandoned buildings. From the top of a 20-storey apartment tower, powerful remote-controlled cameras operated by army surveillance teams keep careful watch on the activity below. In the centre, in jarring contrast to the dilapidated apartments, is 122-year-old St. Peter’s Cathedral, virtually the only structure left standing when authorities bulldozed the neighborhood’s old slum houses two decades ago.
The rector of St. Peter’s is Rev. Matthew Wallace. Said the plainspoken 45-year-old: “There simply won’t be a political solution here until there is an economic solution—and that means jobs.” Talking last week in his crowded office, he added, “If you’re working and you have hope, you don’t want to break anyone’s windows and you don’t want anyone to break your windows.” But Rev. Wallace said that British politicians have been very slow to realize that they must tackle the social problems behind political unrest. “When
there were riots in English cities, they found all kinds of money for inner-city neighborhoods,” he said. “But West Belfast has been written off as a desert.”
Still, Wallace said that attitudes are slowly changing. In July, Britain’s secretary of state
for Northern Ireland, Tom King, announced a development program for Belfast’s poorest neighborhoods. That will involve spending about $20 million by the end of next March to encourage new businesses. Rev. Wallace, who took part in drawing up the plan, acknowledged that it is far from enough. But he maintained that it is a step toward solving social problems that have fuelled violent political activism among both Catholics and Protestants. “The IRA probably feels that real economic growth would be a greater threat than the British army,” he declared.
But for the moment, that day seems far off. West Belfast’s Catholic and Protestant
neighborhoods remain rigidly separated by a series of steel-and-concrete fences erected by security forces several years ago. As much as 20 feet high in places and covered on both sides by rival graffiti, they block off streets that once let people pass freely from one area to another—a freedom that also allowed sectarian gangs to attack their enemies. Illuminated at night by the eerie orange glow of sodium vapor lamps, they are known by an appropriately Orwellian name: “peace walls.”
Along Bombay Street in the Falls, the backs of tiny brick row houses come within a dozen feet of the wall. Their Catholic owners have placed wire netting across the backs of the houses to deflect the rocks and gasoline bombs routinely thrown over the wall by Protestant youths in the Shankill area on the other side.
The rockand bombthrowers are indiscriminate. At the end of Bombay Street is St. Gall’s Primary School, a Catholic boys’ school housed in a two-storey red-brick building backing onto the peace wall. The 300 pupils are aged 4 to 12—and their school is a frequent target. James Devine, the 41-year-old principal of St. Gall’s, said that every window in the back of the school had been smashed by rocks. “They come mostly at night,” he explained last week. “But there have been a few in schooltime, so we don’t let the boys out back.”
After almost 20 years, I the people of West Belfast ¿ have become inured to such g treatment. Since 1969, I when the current round of
1 violence began, 2,690 peo| pie, most of them civilians,
2 have been killed in incidents related to the fight between Loyalists and the Provisional
IRA. An equivalent loss of life in Canada, with a population 17 times larger than that of Ulster, would be 45,730. The death toll has left many people cynical about the possibility of a solution. “They talk about a bloodbath if the British leave,” Mairead Farrell’s grieving mother said bitterly last week. “Well, what have we had these past years but a bloodbath? It couldn’t be any worse—and I just don’t see how it’s going to get any better.” With such fatalism on both sides, the prospect of another two decades of bloodletting appears more real than ever.
ANDREW PHILLIPS in Belfast