Belfast — One year after the murder of Earl Mountbatten of Burma by the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army, the British Army in Northern Ireland is at its lowest manpower level in a decade.
The number of British troops in now just over 11,000 -- half of the number in Ulster at the height of the violence in 1972. The decline in British Army strength has been matched by local recruitment to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, now nearing its target of 7,500 members.
The reason: despite that assassination in August 1979 and the separate killing of 18 British paratroopers on the same day, the level of terrorist violence here is steadily decreasing.
In the words of the latest annual report by Chief Constable John Hermon of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the terrorist violence of the early '70s has "declined to a very considerable extent."
But the political stalemate remains. So far the British attempt to work out a compromise between the leaders of the province's roughly 1 million Protestants and half-million Roman Catholics have failed.
In addition, there is continued economic gloom. Unemployment has reached 15. 3 percent, and a further 13,000 jobs are expected to be lost in 1980 alone.
So it is on the security from that the outlook is brightest. The war of attrition against the IRA terrorists seems to be having an effect.
The change in relative strengths between the RUC and the British Army was symbolized in the almost ritual stone- throwing riots following the annual Protestant Apprentice Boys' march through mainly Catholic Londonderry Aug. 12. The rioters were confronted by the Ulstermen of the RUC, and not British soldiers.
The increasing emphasis on the police seems to be one key element in the new strategy for combatting terrorism. Northern Ireland has its own part-time soldiers, the 8,000 strong Ulster Defense Regiment, but the growing level of serious crime, (including robbery with violence, rape, and theft) has convinced people of the need for an effective police force. The latest RUC figures show that there were 54,000 serious crimes reported last year -- twice the 1970 figure and 20 percent more than in 1978.
Some leaders in the Catholic community are now more willing to support the police because they no longer regard them as a biased Protestant force. Chief Constable Hermon has underlined his determination to be fair, and has stressed that "There will be no hiding place in the RUC for men who break the law."
The official view of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which represents moderate Roman Catholic opinion, is that the police force is an arm of the state and that it cannot fully support the RUC while the constitutional settlement of Northern Ireland is uncertain.
However a different mood among many Catholics is reflected by Paddy Devlin, a councilor in Catholic West Belfast, which has a high crime rate. "Support for the police," Mr. Devlin said, "does not imply any undermining of a constitutional settlement. The people need the help of the police right now in the war against vandalism and crime."
The extent of the problem is reflected by the crime figures, but the strike force of the IRA, despite spectacular incidents such as those of last August, seems to be more limited.
Chief Constable Hermon summed up the determination of his men to apply the law fairly and effectively and their need for support from the community: "We are committed to being an accountable police force. In return we ask for responsibility by the community and its good will and support, in the belief that the end of terrorism lies in the strentgh of the bond that exists between the police and the people they serve."