The Irish Republican Army is in the midst of one of its fiercest campaigns of violence on the British mainland. So far this year, it has launched 19 attacks, killing two soldiers and Conservative MP Ian Gow. In Northern Ireland itself, 68 people have died this year in clashes between the IRA and security forces and in related sectarian violence. Last week, Maclean’s London Bureau Chief Andrew Phillips met in Belfast with a member of the IRA ’s general headquarters staff, the secret body that directs its armed operations. The meeting was arranged through republican sources, who vouched for the authenticity of the IRA member. Phillips’s report:
He answered the question with a studied casualness. “Oh yeah, I’ve been responsible for quite a few deaths,” said the friendly, well-spoken man perched on the edge of a bed in a tiny upstairs room of a brick row house. He paused, flicked cigarette ash off the pastel bedspread and added, “It’s up there in the double figures.” He said that he participated in the killings while he was serving as what the IRA calls an “engineer,” an expert at
making bombs and lethal booby traps aimed at policemen and British soldiers in Northern Ireland. He used guns as well, he said, shooting a policeman and four soldiers, one of whom died. As he spoke, his tone reflected neither boastfulness nor remorse. “We are at war here,” he said simply.
The man, who wore no disguise but gave his name only as Brendan, is in his mid-30s and has been a full-time member of the IRA since he was 17. Before that, he said, he was caught up in the sectarian riots that exploded in Belfast in 1969, and joined an IRA youth group at 14. He left school at 16, has never held a regular job and has never travelled outside Ireland. Even in Belfast, where he was bom and still lives, he seldom moves outside a tight circle of sympathizers and fellow activists. Like the other hardened men and women who have kept the IRA’s armed struggle against the British presence in Ulster alive for 21 years, Brendan has spent almost all of his life in the service of his cause. In the three-hour conversation, he provided a rare glimpse into the closed world that created them, and which now sustains them.
On the surface, there was little to suggest
that Brendan’s chosen trade was killing. The sound of two young girls playing could be heard downstairs, and at one point an elderly woman brought tea and cream cakes. Brendan himself, a short man with closely cropped reddish hair, was articulate and at times displayed an engaging sense of humor. When asked about reports that IRA leaders live off money extorted from local people, he laughed and turned out the pockets of his white jeans. “I’ve got 51p [about a dollar] to my name,” he said. “It’s not Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Independent experts agree that there is little evidence that IRA members profit personally from their activities. Said Maxwell Taylor, a psychologist and IRA expert at University College in Cork, Ireland: “There is an almost puritanical streak to it.”
But behind the IRA leader’s genial tone was an unyielding dêdication to the goal of driving the British out and achieving a united Ireland by force. Bom in the strongly nationalist West Belfast neighborhood of Andersonstown, Brendan said that he had childhood memories of Protestants taunting him in nearby areas, and “a general sense that we were second-class citizens.” When Protestant mobs attacked Roman Catholic ghettos in 1969, he was one of the young teenagers who fought back. British troops arrived that year, and many Catholics quickly came to regard them as enemies. Brendan’s family opened their home to republican activists on the run from the police. At 17, after he joined the IRA, the organization sent him to a weapons-training camp. “Like most young people then,” he recalled, “I just wanted to fight back at the British.”
As a result, he said, he served two long
prison terms on weapons and explosives charges in Long Kesh prison, also known as the Maze, along with other IRA members. At the end of both sentences, he reported back to the IRA. He said that he went on “dozens” of missions to attack police or army targets, sometimes as often as two or three times a week. Many IRA attacks have resulted in the deaths of civilian bystanders, but Brendan insisted that all those who died-as a result of his “operations” were members of the security forces. “If I was asked to go out and shoot someone just to terrorize a community,” he said, “I’d be incapable.”
Although Brendan and other leaders of the IRA and Sinn Fein, the organization’s legal political wing, were raised in staunchly Catholic communities, church leaders’ repeated condemnations of IRA violence have had no effect
on the group itself. In late October, after terrorists forced three civilians to transport bombs to army targets—incidents that killed six soldiers and one of the so-called human bombs—Bishop Edward Daly of Londonderry attacked the IRA as followers of Satan. Brendan did not appear to be concerned by that uncompromising language. “No one sees these as moral statements,” he said. “They are political statements by politically biased people.”
His own justification for killing? “My philosophy on life is that a person has to achieve the greatest amount of good in his life. And in Ireland, the greatest amount of good is to achieve lasting peace on this island. That means ending the British presence—anything less will just perpetuate the agony.” Aside from their political rationalization for killing, IRA leaders have become inured to the suffering of others. Asked about the deaths of young soldiers, Brendan acknowledged that their families would suffer as much as anyone else. But he quickly switched the subject to the many friends he has lost: IRA members killed in
clashes with the security forces. He ticked off the number of slain friends on his fingers, and quickly ran out of fingers. “There’ve been so many,” he said. “People you’ve worked with, lived with.”
Catholic leaders’ anti-IRA statements have also failed to eliminate popular support for the organization among some nationalist Catholics. Roughly a third of Northern Ireland’s 600,000 Catholics have voted for Sinn Fein candidates, apparently because they approve of the IRA’s activities. Security officials acknowledge that, without significant support, the terrorist group would find it much more difficult to continue its clandestine war. The IRA itself is very small, numbering only about 200 members, including possibly as few as 50 who actually carry out armed attacks, experts say. But it relies on a much wider network of sympathizers,
who provide everything from money and information to the temporary use of cars and houses.
For activists like Brendan, full-time membership in the IRA offers few obvious rewards. After he finished his second prison term in the mid-1980s, he married a woman who is a member of Sinn Fein, although not of the IRA itself. They have two children, aged 4 and 2, but little normal family life. “I never sleep more than two nights in a row in the same place,” he said. “Sometimes I sleep at home, sometimes my wife stays with me.” Both parents speak only Gaelic to the children, part of their commitment to Irish language and culture. He collects no salary from the IRA, he said, but receives £33 (about $75) a week in unemployment benefits.
As an organization, the IRA is fairly strong financially. Police estimate that it raises about £5 million (roughly $11.5 million) a year from such diverse sources as gaming machines, drinking clubs, taxi companies and pirate video operations in West Belfast. Police say that the
IRA also runs protection rackets and owns legitimate businesses. In the past year, police have been given more extensive powers to collect information from financial institutions in order to undermine the IRA’s money-gathering operations. But one police official acknowledged last week that “it’s a long, slow process.”
The British minister responsible for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke, has attempted in the past several months to initiate new negotiations towards a political settlement in Ulster. But those talks have almost entirely broken down before they even started, mainly because moderate Catholic and Unionist parties cannot agree on how they should be conducted. At the same time, the day-to-day hostility between the two communities continues unabated. Throughout West Belfast, authorities have
built an intricate network of walls and fences to prevent Catholics and Protestants from throwing rocks or gasoline bombs at each other’s houses. Brian Feeney, a moderate Catholic city councillor in West Belfast, says that even more barriers are needed. “The stones and the bombs keep coming over,” he said. “It’s extremely gloomy.”
Such forecasts almost guarantee that the IRA’s violent campaign will continue indefinitely. Like other leaders of the republican movement, Brendan pointed to last year’s unexpected collapse of the Iron Curtain to illustrate how he hopes a settlement might one day come in Northern Ireland—despite continual assertions by British leaders that they will never give in to terrorist violence. “Who could have foreseen what happened in Eastern Europe?” he asked. “The movement is towards demilitarization throughout Europe. Sooner or later, the British have to realize that we cannot be defeated.” In the meantime, he said, he is prepared to keep fighting—and killing—into the 21st century. □
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