Belfast — Another chapter in the IRA's effort to seize world attention is being played out in the gray streets of this embattled city. This time the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army is using the ancient tactic of a prolonged hunger strike to make a blunt appeal to sympathy and emotion.
On the surface, the ploy has been spectacularly successful in gaining worldwide publicity.
Underneath, however, it may well have sharpened the basic divisions between Protestants and Roman Catholics in this British-administered province, and between Northern Ireland itself and the Irish Republic to the south. That, in turn, is likely to postpone rather than accelerate a genuine resolution of Ulster's long agony.
Indeed, many Protestants now say they feel so besieged by the threat of new IRA violence that the situation is worse than it has been for at least five years.
The IRA strategy is clear. Bobby Sands, convicted prisoner, recently elected member of the British Parliament, and hunger striker expected to die within days of this writing, is the IRA's latest martyr. It wants an upsurge of world sympathy for its fight against the British.
In more practical terms, it also wants a stepped-up flow of donations from its sympathizers, not least in the United States.
Funds from America have reportedly been at a somewhat low ebb in recent months. The IRA counts on more money now. And the Sands case fills front pages , prompts President Reagan to release his views, and brings US network television crews to roam the streets of Belfast.
No one seems to know just how much money Americans send the IRA each year. Protestants here say the IRA uses the dollars to buy Kalashnikov rifles and other weapons from Eastern Europe. The arms are said to reach here via Libya and the Irish Republic.
Last year the US Justice Department reported a total of $292,374 in officially registered donations -- a sum that the British Northern Ireland Office in London dismisses as merely "the tip of the iceberg."
The new world spotlight has had other effects: The Pope sent his personal secretary here late April 27 to visit Mr. Sands in prison. Earlier, members of the European Human Rights Commission visited the province. The British Government gave them permission to see Mr. Sands -- until he insisted on their being accompanied by some of his IRA associates. Former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark and the Rev. Daniel Berrigan also turned up but were not allowed to visit Mr. Sands.
In countries as far apart as Denmark and Australia, as well as the United States, the pale face of Mr. Sands stares out from front pages and television screens. Not only American but West European television crews, correspondents, and photographers jam the only downtown hotel left in Belfast, the Europa.
The British government stands firm. It refuses to acknowledge IRA demands for political status in the Maze prison. It reiterated its view April 27, insisting that it was up to Mr. Sands to decide to live or die. London stopped force-feeding prisoners in 1974, concluding that it was both dangerous and infringment of prisoners' rights.
And in the grimy Falls Roman Catholic district of the city, in Protestant enclaves, and out in the countryside, ancient grievances remain.
One of the key Protestants sits in a living room chair in Portadown, 20 miles west of Belfast, talking to this correspondent behind panes of bullet-proof glass covering his five front windows.
His telephone rings constantly. Fellow Protestants tell him they are putting back the shutters and wire-mesh screens on their own windows they had taken down over the past five years.
The man is energetic former schoolteacher Harold McCusker, now member of Parliament in Westminister for Armagh, and a leading spokesman for the Ulster's Official Unionist Party.
He has emerged as a leading spokesman for his party and its leader, James Molyneaux, and he candidly acknowledges that he is a prime target for IRA violence.
He acknowledges that the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland holds a veto over any changes in the way the province is run. The British government has pledged to do nothing without majority agreement. But he feels under new tension and siege. Another Ulster Defense Regiment man was shot here April 27, the sixth this year and just one day after a boobytrap bomb had killed an Ulster policeman in West Belfast.
Protestant fear that the IRA will unleash new violence and killing to impress the world press after Mr. Sands dies and his funeral has been held.
As we talked, Mr. McCusker asked Americans to equate IRA terrorism with terrorism in the Middle East, the Basque country in Spain, Cyprus, and elsewhere. Speaking with bitterness, he said compassion was indivisible, and asked why the Pope had not sent an emissary to the side of the West German hunger striker who died recently.
Protestants, he said, resented US financial aid to the IRA. They also objected to what he called the "interference " of former Attorney General Clark and Mr. Berrigan.