A deadly IRA offensive

ANDREW BILSKI August 15 1988

A deadly IRA offensive

ANDREW BILSKI August 15 1988

A deadly IRA offensive


Raymond McNicholl was driving to work at a factory in Northern Ireland last Wednesday morning when the attack erupted. The 30-year-old father of one and part-time soldier in the province’s Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR)—a mainly Protestant military unit recruited locally by the British armyslowed his car to cross a narrow bridge outside Cookstown, 65 km west of Belfast. Then, gunmen waiting in ambush sprang their trap. According to local police, McNicholl tried to fight off his attackers with his service revolver. But the gunmen shot him several times in the head and chest and left him for dead. A short time later, a passer-by found the wounded militiaman. He was rushed by ambulance to a hospital in nearby Dungannon, but he died several hours later.

McNicholl was one of six victims, including two elderly civilian construction workers, in a spate of killings last week by the underground Irish Republican Army. The attacks formed part

of a deadly new wave of violence against military men and civilians by the IRA, the mainly Roman Catholic guerrillas who have been fighting actively since 1969 to force British soldiers from predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland and to unite the province with the southern Irish republic. In the nine months before last week, the IRA had killed eight UDR members, two policemen and 12 British soldiers in Northern Ireland. In the same period, the British authorities claimed a series of successes against IRA gunmen, as well as propaganda gains when Irish nationalist guerrillas killed 17 civilians and injured dozens of others in bungled attacks on security forces. But in its series of bombings and assassinations last week, the IRA’s offensive proved to be deadly not only in Ulster but also on the British mainland after a break of nearly four years.

The latest cycle of violence began early on Aug. 1 with an explosion at a British army barracks in north London that killed one soldier and injured nine others. The next day, six part-time UDR soldiers were injured when their

Land-Rover hit an IRA land mine in the village of Carland, 55 km west of Belfast. Later that day, an IRA bomb exploded under a car in a busy shopping area of Lisburn, near Belfast, killing one policeman and injuring 18 bystanders. About 20 minutes later, two IRA gunmen dragged a part-time soldier out of a Belfast store and shot him to death in front of his wife and two-year-old daughter. Then, on Aug. 4, just one day after the ambush of McNicholl, four gunmen dressed in combat gear fired roughly 150 rounds at point-blank range at a van, killing two Protestant construction workers, aged 60 and 64, who were returning home from repair work on a bombdamaged police station in Belleek, near the border with the Republic of Ireland. An IRA statement later said the victims had refused to heed its warnings against working for the army and police in Northern Ireland.

Commenting on the violence, Neil Kinnock, leader of the opposition British Labour Party, declared, “Such actions earn only loathing and contempt.” He added, “The IRA will never

advance any cause for which it stands by murderous attacks.” But the violence raised fears of a new IRA bombing campaign against British forces.

On Aug. 2, IRA leaders told civilians to avoid contact with British soldiers. They added: “We are issuing this warning because the close presence of civilians causes us to abandon operations. No one should travel close to, or with, clearly identified members of the British forces.” The statement added that the warning applied throughout Europe. Later, unidentified IRA sources in Belfast said that civilians who frequent discotheques and pubs used by off-duty military personnel are especially at risk. That aroused fears that the guerrillas may be planning attacks similar to a 1982 pub bombing near Londonderry, Ulster’s second-largest city, and two 1974 bombings in the London area. In all, those explosions killed 15 soldiers and nine civilians and injured more than 150 people.

The north London bomb attack on Aug. 1 against the Inglis Barracks exposed the vulnerability of hundreds of noncombatant military installations throughout Britain. Situated in the affluent residential suburb of Mill Hill— on the edge of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s parliamentary constitu-

ency of Finchley—the barracks houses the defence department’s postal and courier services. Just before 7 a.m., as soldiers slept in a men’s dormitory, an explosion ripped through the two-storey brick building, reducing most of it to rubble. Lance-Cpl. Michael Robbins,

23, died. Nine others were injured, two of them seriously. Said Capt. James Donovan, the security officer at the base: “It has been a tragedy for us and our security. I have been here for many years and I think that it is a miracle we have not been hit before.” Indeed, despite a wave of bombings and machine-gun attacks on British military targets in West Germany and the Netherlands since May, critics charged that security at the Inglis Barracks was decidedly lax. Reporters on the scene discovered that the fivefoot-high perimeter fence was riddled with gaping holes. And workers at the base said that an entry checkpoint was sometimes left unguarded, allowing local residents to walk in and out of the complex at will. “This was a soft target, and this makes it an extremely cowardly attack,” said Archie Hamilton, minister of state for the defence department. “We don’t keep the military apart from the community but we will obviously now have to review our security arrangements.”

Before the barracks explosion, the last successful IRA attack on the British mainland occurred in October, 1984. During the annual Conservative party conference in the British southern coastal city of Brighton, a bomb exploded in the Grand Hotel, where Thatcher and most of her cabinet were staying. The early-morning blast destroyed portions of several floors. In her second-floor suite, Thatcher narrowly escaped injury or death from falling debris. But five people—includ-

ing veteran Tory MP Sir Anthony Berry—were killed. In the wake of the barracks attack, the government ordered a reappraisal of security arrangements for key events, including this year’s Conservative party conference, which is again scheduled

to be held in Brighton in October.

The latest rash of attacks may be an effort by the IRA to counteract claims that its strength is waning. Although the IRA claims an active membership of several thousand, informed observers estimate that the group’s current strength in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is about 200 guerrillas and several hundred active supporters. But in the past two years, the IRA has suffered a series of setbacks, including the deaths or capture of many top gunmen and the discovery by police of several major weapons caches. Last March, after members of Britain’s antiterrorism Special Air Services force killed three unarmed guerrillas in Gibraltar, the IRA vowed revenge. Still, the organization has been under pressure from its own supporters to choose its targets more selectively, after a series of attacks in which civilians were mistakenly killed. In the latest such incident in July, an innocent family of three died in a bomb blast intended for an Ulster judge.

A source close to the IRA in Dublin said that the London barracks bombing was not a revenge killing. “It was nice after Gibraltar, but the Mill Hill bomb is part of our long-term strategy to hit the British security forces wherever they are—Holland, Germany, Gibraltar or London.” The source, who did not want his name used, said that unintended killings of civilians “were bad blows for morale, but the Mill Hill explosion has done wonders to retrieve that situation.” He added: “It also hit at a target beside Thatcher’s constituency just before the fourth anniversary of the Brighton bomb when we nearly got her. It shows we can still strike at the heartland of the British establishment.”

On Friday, the violence continued. An explosion at a British army barracks in Düsseldorf, West Germany, injured three soldiers and a female civilian and, on Saturday, the IRA claimed responsibility for having planted a bomb there. In a front-page editorial last week, the IRA newspaper Republican News declared, “In a week in which there has been a major resurgence in IRA attacks against British forces, the Westminster government has been faced in a more dramatic way than for years with the stark reality that there can be no peace until it gets out of Ireland.” But the killings seemed only to have stiffened Britain’s resolve to fight the terrorists at any cost, adding to the tragedy of the region known to many as the meanest corner of the British Isles.