Beware of IRA's arms and determination, experts say Resumption of violence examined for clues to terrorists' aims

February 25, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- The Irish Republican Army has the weaponry and determination to prolong into the next century its campaign of violence to force Britain to give up power in Northern Ireland, according to senior British officials, politicians and academic experts.

In the wake of the outlawed organization's resumption of what it calls its "armed struggle" after a 17-month cease-fire, the IRA's estimated 400 active guerrillas -- helped with logistics by several thousand supporters -- are able to tie down about 30,000 British army troops and police officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

"They have the will and the capacity to continue indefinitely," said Paul Arthur, a political scientist at Ulster University.

It remains unclear what the IRA's current intent might be -- whether the bombs planted in London in the past two weeks were an attempt to hurry the British and Protestant political leaders into full-fledged peace talks or the start of another protracted campaign of violence.

The Roman Catholic minority has long felt oppressed by the Protestant majority.

The IRA, which is despised by a large majority of the people of Northern Ireland because of its dedication to violence, appears to be losing some of the tacit support it has among some Catholics.

Some even say they would support a return to preventive detention, or internment, if the British security forces arrested only known IRA guerrillas.

But the anger of ordinary citizens and political leaders does not diminish the IRA's ability to hold the entire province in fear, and most politicians and officials here and in Dublin still believe that the only way to a peaceful settlement is to try to restart negotiations with Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing.

Bernadette McAliskey -- who as Bernadette Devlin in the late 1960s was a prominent spokeswoman for Catholic rights and a member of the British Parliament from Northern Ireland -- said she believes that the bombs were intended as "a military operation of short duration, a loud bang to wake up John Major," the British prime minister, apparently with the goal of nudging the British to full-fledged negotiations.

She said she believes it unlikely that any deaths were intended.

But Ms. McAliskey, who has supported the IRA in the past and who remains active in community groups, said the attacks in London were poorly executed and showed a political myopia that gave all other parties valid reasons to delay the peace effort.

The IRA council acted, she said, in part to avoid being supplanted by leaders who favored an even harder, more violent, line. Other officials and analysts agreed.

Mr. Arthur, Ms. McAliskey and officials in Northern Ireland also asserted that Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, was still the only person able to negotiate a new cease-fire with the guerrillas.

Political leaders here and in Britain support a referendum in Northern Ireland asking people to confirm that they are opposed to violence and in favor of immediate all-party negotiations.

This was proposed several weeks ago by John Hume, the leader of the predominantly Catholic and mainstream Social Democratic and Labor Party.

Britain and Ireland have tentatively agreed to the referendum, in conjunction with elections for a new body that would start formal peace talks.

But Sinn Fein has rejected the proposal as a delaying tactic. Mr. Hume's Social Democrats also object to the elections.

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