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NORTHERN IRELAND: The Provos’ Problems

5 minute read

The Irish, among their other gifts, have a talent for marking the significant moment. Last week ten young men and women, all from Ulster, went on trial in the city of Winchester for the bombings last March of Whitehall and the Old Bailey courthouse. Shortly before 1 p.m. on the same day, a youth described by witnesses as “not even old enough to shave” tossed a paper bag into a passageway at busy King’s Cross station. With a deafening roar, a three-pound gelignite bomb went off, spraying the lunch-hour crowd with glass and debris and injuring five people.

The bomb was only the first in a stepped-up campaign of terror last week in Britain. Police believe it is the work of the Irish Republican Army. Forty-five minutes after the King’s Cross explosion, a second bomb ripped through a snack bar at Euston station, half a mile away. Later in the week two more bombs exploded at office buildings in the heart of London. Although there have been more than 40 bombing incidents in the past month, no one−extraordinarily−has been killed. But as the risks and casualties have mounted (31 people injured so far), so has British ire. “Why don’t they come out and fight?” cried one angry man as he was evacuated from a railroad station. “Why don’t these people come out and face us man to man if they’ve got something to say?”

In fact, the terrorists’ maddeningly effective ability to spread havoc and fear is far out of proportion to their numbers. Police believe that no more than six persons, split between two small Provisional I.R.A. cells, are involved. The war of nerves, as Scotland Yard sees it, is a desperate, last-ditch attempt by the badly scattered Proves to make the British so fed up that they will withdraw their troops from Ulster. But the bombings could also backfire and stiffen British resolve to stick it out. Late last week, the I.R.A., which had previously refused to confirm or deny responsibility for the bombings, virtually admitted its guilt. In a statement addressed to Prime Minister Edward Heath, the Proves warned: “We shall strike when and wherever we deem it necessary.”

The fact that the I.R.A. Proves are still functioning at all is something of a triumph for the organization. The British army command claims that it has broken the back of the I.R.A. in Ulster−and that is probably true. In the past five months, more than 300 suspected I.R.A. members in Northern Ireland have been detained. British intelligence experts estimate that there are only 20 full-time Provo activists left in Belfast, down from a peak of 1,100 in 1972. The average young Provisional is either picked up or shot within three months after he joins the I.R.A. As a result, recruits have grown younger and younger, often including 15-year-olds.

In Belfast, where gun battles once raged through the streets, there are now only occasional rounds of sniper fire. Army deaths are down to one a month, compared with 20 a month a year ago. Military units have occupied such rebel strongholds as the Ballymurphy and Andersons town districts of Belfast.

Heavy Losses. The I.R.A. has now all but lost its command structure. Two weeks ago, the Proves’ chief of staff, Seamus Twomey, 54, was picked up by the Irish Republic garda as he slept in a farmhouse across the border. Now only one veteran I.R.A. leader remains outside of jail: David O’Connell, 35, a former schoolteacher and senior political strategist. Because of the heavy losses, the Proves’ cumbersome old-style military organization has been abandoned for five-and six-man cells or “active service units,” which operate independently and take their orders directly from what remains of the Provisionals’ army council in the South. Tactics run mainly to hit-and-run operations on unsuspecting civilian targets, often in the border areas, in a pattern markedly similar to the British bombings.

The Proves have also lost crucial public support. Catholic communities in Ulster no longer feel that they need the I.R.A. for protection against Protestant violence, and an increasing number of former sympathizers are now asking why and for how long the present warfare must go on. Last week O’Connell reportedly conceded that the Provisionals face serious rivals for power within the Catholic community−the Social, Democratic and Labor Party and the Marxist-leaning I.R.A. Officials, who fell out with the Provisionals over the Proves’ emphasis on military tactics four years ago. O’Connell is thought to be convinced, however, that the British are committed to getting out of Northern Ireland sooner or later, and that the Provos must survive in order to remain a force to be dealt with after the pullout.

Although the Proves seem uncertain about where to move next, their dogged persistence has earned them grudging respect from their adversaries. Says one leader of the I.R.A. Officials: “The Proves just keep punching along, like Mr. Micawber, hoping that something will turn up. But their big problem is that they have now raised a physical monster and are trying to re-educate it into becoming a political force. They have to, you know,” he adds, “otherwise the Provos might really become dangerous.”

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