JOHN BIERMAN September 26 1988



JOHN BIERMAN September 26 1988






We had fed the heart on fantasies,

The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.

—William Butler Yeats

In the British colony of Gibraltar, 1,271 miles from the bloodshed in Northern Ireland, a coroner’s inquest is examining the circumstances under which three members of the Irish Republican Army were shot dead in the street last March by men of the British army’s elite Special Air Service (SAS). The jury has yet to deliver its verdict. But it seems clear that the IRA trio—two men and a woman—were ambushed while preparing to plant a car bomb that, in the process of blowing up members of a British army band, would almost certainly have killed many innocent Gibraltarians. Just as clearly, the IRA team—unarmed and with no remote control device to detonate their bomb—were given no chance to surrender before being cut down. Yeats was right: now, as in his day, Ireland’s fantasies—that the country can be unified at gunpoint, that terror can be neutralized by counterterror—do indeed brutalize hearts on both sides.

But as the IRA enters the 20th year of its current struggle against British rule, violence is occurring at a rate that, if sustained, will make 1988 the most murderous year since 1979 (page 26). That violence has recently spread well beyond the bounds of Ulster—to Gibraltar, to mainland Britain and even to the Continent, where British troops are based. So far this year, the IRA has killed 27 British servicemen with the intention—as a senior source within the movement told Maclean’s recently—“of sickening British public opinion, to make them realize that Northern Ireland is a place where they don’t belong.” Another senior IRA man described the offensive as “the final phase,” leading to British withdrawal within two years. But Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, living up to her “Iron Lady” reputation, maintains that the IRA offensive only strengthens her resolve that “Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and will remain so.”

In fact, the IRA—although bolstered by massive supplies of high-tech weapons smuggled from Libya—is facing a difficult future. In addition to the three experienced operatives it lost in Gibraltar, three others have been killed and two captured in the past month—significant losses for an organization widely estimated to have no more than 200 “active service” members. As well, last week it lost a huge cache of weapons and explosives discovered by police in Londonderry, 104 km northwest of Belfast. And a series of bungled bombings, in which 21 innocent civilians died over the past year, has angered even many who support the IRA’s objectives. At the funeral of two Catholics killed last month by a misplaced IRA bomb, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Londonderry, Dr.

Edward Daly, declared, “We want no more apologies; we want an end to the violence.”

There seems little hope of that happening.

Earlier this month, the Royal Ulster Constabulary made the chilling forecast that the IRA is planning “a horrifying remainder to 1988.”

Comments equating the lot of the Ulster Catholic with the American Negro are absurd hyperbole.

—Capt.Terence O’Neill in 1967

One year after that statement by O’Neill—a moderate Protestant politician—leaders of the province’s 500,000-strong Catholic minority launched a civil rights campaign modelled on that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They sought to erase the kind of ingrained discrimination expressed by a former Northern Ireland prime minister, Lord Brookeborough, who boasted: “I have not one [Catholic] about my place. I would appeal to Loyalists to employ good Protestant lads and lasses.”

The civil rights campaign was nonviolent, but, after a year of rising tension, sectarian riots broke out. In Belfast, Protestant mobs—believing that civil rights demands were a cloak for their forcible unification with the 95-per-centCatholic Irish republic—burned entire streets in Catholic enclaves. In Londonderry, Catholic rioters fought a four-day battle with police.

When, in August, 1969, Britain sent troops to restore order, grateful Catholic housewives took them tea and cakes as they stood watch at roadblocks. “They were our friends then,” recalled Eilis McQuade, now a 37-year-old Belfast mother of four. But the friendship did not last. The moribund republican underground sprang back to life as the Provisional IRA and swiftly prepared for war with the Protestant militants and the British troops, whose very presence they saw as an affront.

In 1971, a campaign of shooting and bombing provoked Edward Heath’s Conservative government to introduce u internment without trial. But that policy, as Heath z himself recently admitted, was a mistake. Many innocent y people were seized in mass roundups of IRA suspects, B while Protestant militants were allowed to remain free. That alienated moderate Catholic opinion, and IRA recruiting soared. By 1975, internment had been phased 2 out, but then the British inflamed the Catholics again by E withdrawing the political status of IRA prisoners. In

response, jailed republicans mounted an escalating protest campaign. In 1981, led by prisoner Bobby Sands, many went on a hunger strike. At a byelection, sympathetic Catholics elected Sands to the British Parliament, and when Sands and nine of the others died, one by one, Britain’s reputation abroad was badly tarnished.

The martyrdom of Sands and his comrades encouraged Sinn Fein, the legal political wing of the IRA, to engage in electoral politics. In 1982, it won five seats in an experimental 78-seat local assembly—later abolished—which the British set up. In the 1983 British general election, Sinn Fein candidates polled 102,701 of the 754,925 votes cast by both communities, and its fiery president, Gerry Adams, became MP for West Belfast. Adams won again last year, and the Sinn Fein vote represented more than 30 per cent of the Catholic electorate.

Meanwhile, the Anglo-Irish agreement of November, 1985, had given Dublin, for the first time, a consultative role in Northern Ireland’s internal affairs. The accord outraged Protestant leaders, who considered it a prelude to enforced unification with the South (page 32). And in a recent poll of Catholics, 82 per cent of respondents said that the pact had not materially improved their living conditions. An official study showed that Catholics were still subject to job discrimination, having 2lh times the unemployment rate of Protestants. In their different ways, the Establishment Protestant Brookeborough and the rebel Catholic Sands had left an enduring legacy.

In no wap can, or will, the IRA ever be defeated militarily.

—Gen. Sir James Glover in February, 1988 Glover speaks from experience. Now retired, he was commander of British troops in Northern Ireland in 1979 and 1980. He delivered his judgment on the military situation before the IRA launched its current offensive. But he clearly would have been aware of the IRA’s ominous new Libyan connection.

Until recently, the movement was largely dependent on arms smuggled in small quantities by U.S. sympathizers. But last October, French customs police, intercepting a ship suspected of carrying drugs, found instead 150 tons of armaments for the IRA. The shipment included 1,000 AK-47 automatic rifles, 20 SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles, plus RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and a large amount of Semtex, a powerful Czech-made explosive. The crew disclosed that four shiploads of similar weaponry—a gift from Libya—had landed in Ireland.

With the support of a significant part of the Catholic community, a powerful new arsenal at their disposal and a proven capacity to survive the heaviest blows and come back fighting, the IRA seems well able to continue the struggle—if not win it—for many years to come.