Backstage

After Mountbatten, terrorists set their sights on ‘prestige’ targets

Carol Kennedy September 17 1979
Backstage

After Mountbatten, terrorists set their sights on ‘prestige’ targets

Carol Kennedy September 17 1979

After Mountbatten, terrorists set their sights on ‘prestige’ targets

Backstage:London

When Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was attacked in the 1930s for his failure to re-arm Britain against the growing Nazi threat, he replied in extenuation: “The bomber will always get through.” Nearly half a century later, the government of Margaret Thatcher is faced with a depressingly similar prospect: that the determined terrorist will always get through.

Thatcher’s Labor predecessor, Jim Callaghan, used precisely those words the other day when speaking about the latest monstrous act of an increasingly well-equipped and confident set of Irish terrorists—the murders, all on one day, of Lord Mountbatten, two of his family, an Irish teen-age boy and 18 British soldiers.

Backroom defence analysts in London now are reaching conclusions markedly different from the optimistic pronouncements that tend to issue from British military commanders and secretaries of state for Ulster. “Getting on top of the gunmen” used to be the favored phrase, but today’s terrorist, tightly organized and with a modern arsenal at his fingertips, is a different, far more dangerous opponent.

The day after the Mountbatten murder, The Evening Standard published an article headed “Are the IRA winning?” In it, historian and former New Statesman editor Paul Johnson said flatly that Britain was losing the war against terrorism in Northern Ireland. He cited two closely researched documents: a confidential study by British military intelligence—one copy of

which went embarrassingly “astray” in the British postal system last spring and ended up in IRA hands—and an analysis published in June by the London-based, privately funded Institute for the Study of Conflict (ISC).

Both make disturbing reading. They reveal that since 1977 the Provisional IRA has been completely reorganized, re-equipped and retrained, with some international help from Middle East guerrillas and Basque separatists. The provo structure is now smaller than before—with perhaps 400 to 500 activists—but is more dedicated and disciplined, tightly organized into cells of fewer than six people. These groups are often told only of their immediate task but nothing about the larger organization, so they can reveal little even under interrogation. After an assignment they disperse until called upon again. The Financial Times said recently that some senior police and army officers think the IRA in this new form “cannot be defeated.”

Another terrorist group, the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), is a Marxist organization which split from the provos in 1975. It is financed, equipped and trained largely by the Soviet Bloc and its allies, and also enjoys Middle East terrorist support, according to the ISC report. The INLA broke into prominence last spring when it killed Tory MP Airey Neave with a bomb. Had he

lived, he would have become Ulster secretary (and a tough, canny one) in the Thatcher government.

With these rival groups at work, the military report predicts that the potential for violence will remain for the next four years at least, no matter what surface “peace” is established. For the moment there is no peace on any front, since there is apparently a bloody recruitment rivalry well under way between the INLA and Provisional IRA. In this grisly context the killing of Airey Neave would have been superseded in “prestige” value by the murder of the Queen’s elderly cousin, and the deadly competition for even bigger targets will probably continue.

If the terrorists’ plan is to take over government (only after making Ulster ungovernable by anyone else) they will need some popular support. Despite that fact, however, the IRA gunmen have demonstrated frequently that they do not care whether they kill members of their own Catholic community in their operations: as The Observer commented in an editorial, their view seems to be that such people “ought to be proud to have a chance of dying for Ireland, and if they are not proud .. . they don’t deserve to live.”

Their logic is not that of normal people; perhaps because they are convinced history is on their side. Their worst are like psychopaths—like the so-called “Yorkshire Ripper” who recently claimed his 12th victim in northern England—who tend to appear half the time as ordinary men with normal human pursuits and attachments. But for the other half, they are as dangerous as nitroglycerin. It is a problem Britain— and Ireland—will have to live with for many years, and perhaps many tragedies yet to come. Carol Kennedy