Belfast — The real issues here go much deeper than the flying petrol bombs made from milk bottles, the stones, and the answering plastic bullets of the security forces that followed the death of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands.
Being tested now more sharply than at any time in the last decade is the future of Northern Ireland's relationships with London and Dublin, the cohesiveness and identity of the 1 1/2 million people here, and the effectiveness and popularity of the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army itself.
In a deeper sense, the British government is under heavy new pressure to go beyond containing current violence. It is being challenged anew to come up with workable long-term ideas to ease 60 years of intermittent bloodshed and fears generated by a bitterly controversial partition of Ireland, both physical and in men's minds.
Total deaths since 1969 alone amount to 2,096 at this writing, including that of Mr. Sands and 1,498 other civilians.
Many thoughtful analysts here believe that the underlying tragedy of the Bobby Sands affair is that it has hindered and delayed the search for solutions at the very moment when prospects had seemed to be more promising than for many years.
Notably at risk: the current joint studies of new institutional arrangements between London and Dublin. These studies, the most visible outcome of last December's surprise meeting between British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Irish counterpart, Charles J. Haughey, are threatened by nationalist pressures building on Mr. Haughey.
Mr. Haughey is already in deep political troubel in the Irish Republic. Polls indicate he could well lose the next election, expected to be held later this year. Since the Sands death early May 5, he has been deliberately cautious in public; his dilemma is that he wants to avoid antagonizing Prime Minister Thatcher while still appeasing nationalist ire at home.
If Mr. Haughey attacks Britain "for letting Bobby Sands die," he alienates Mrs. Thatcher; if he is booted out of office for ineffectiveness on Northern Ireland as well as the state of the Irish economy, more delay would follow while the new prime minister (most likely Garret Fitzgerald of the United Ireland Party) takes stock of the London-Dublin talks.
At this writing IRA violence on the battered, rock-strewn streets of West Belfast was being successfully contained under rainy skies.
Home television screens tend to heighten the sense of conflict by focusing on the bombs and anger, but in fact, security forces have achieved their aims, so far at least.
Their job is to make sure that riotng is confirmed to Catholic areas in Belfast and within limits in Catholic-majority Londonderry.
Prolonged rioting in Belfast May 5 saw youths tipping over cars and buses and burning them, volleys of petrol-filled milk bottles and rocks, some rioters seizing pneumatic drills to rip chunks of barricade material from the roadway, at least four people injured, and 14 schools closed.
But by early evening, Catholic anger had not spilled over into Protestant areas.
A senior police spokesman told the Monitor that violence so far had "been intense" but that it had been contained. The situation remained "volatile."
Sands' coffn will attract large crowds in West Belfast before the May 7 funeral. The Provisional IRA has called for a national day of mourning, with Catholics throughout Ireland staying away from work to mark the funeral. An IRA spokesman told this correspondent that success would be measured by the number of people on the streets for the funeral.
He denied plans to shut down Ulster industry: "Unemployment in Catholic areas runs as high 40 percent already," he said. "There's not much work to stop."
Three more hunger strikers are still in the Maze prison. Francis Hughes, without food 51 days by May 5, was expected to die within days unless he called off his fast. Raymond McCreesh and Joseph O'Hara have both gone 44 days without food. Their deaths could cause more rioting.
Both Protestant and Catholic spokesmen see the next few days as critical.
Political sources told the Monitor the Provos have armed themselves with Armorlite, M-1, M-3, and M-16 rifles; Soviet Kalashnikov automatic rifles and their Chinese-made versions, called the Semenov; rocket launchers from Eastern Europe; automatic pistols from Czechoslovakia; Czech hand grenades, and other weapons.
Many have been bought with dollars with sympathizers in the United States.
Yet for the IRA, too, this is a time of crisis. If it cannot demonstrate widespread support in north and south to the international press corps gathered here. "Its bluff might be called," as one Catholic worker told me in the depths of the Falls Road area.
The recent election of Sands as a member of Parliament and his subsequent death are widely seen here as almost a last-ditch IRA effort to recover ground lost when seven hunger strikers gave up last December amid confusion and controversy. The IRA claimed London had made political concessions; the Thatcher government denied it had made any but later admitted to some.
Army and police here privately worry that the IRA might bid for world headlines now by staging spectacular violence or assassinations against groups of soldiers, or prominent British leaders. In mainland Britain, security has been intensified at the houses of Parliament in London and at residences of the royal family.
For the moment, security forces are far stronger than they were in 1969. Then, there were no British troops at all, and only 3,200 local police.
Today, the Royal Ulster Constabulary in their dark green uniforms and black flak jackets, with self-loading rifles, Federal Riot Guns firing plastic bullets , and armored Land Rovers, number 7,000 men. Some 90 percent of them are Protestant. Morale is said to be good.
They are supported by a reserve police force of about 5,000, by the Ulster Defense Regiment of 7,600 volunteers, and by British Army troops totaling 11,094 . More troops can be here in 72 hours or less from bases in England and Scotland.
Army troops in the most dangerous areas serve 4 1/2 months at a time, then return to West Germany or the mainland. They number 3,400. About 7,700 serve to two years each.
Meanwhile the Protestant community and its outlawed paramilitary arm, the Ulster Volunteer Force, watch with extreme concern. Peter Robinson MP, the deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, said in an interview that he was worried the IRA would stage attacks all over Northern Ireland to scatter security forces as widely as possible.
"So far the security forces are holding," he said. "But will Mrs. Thatcher stay the course? Will she send reinforcements if the violence goes on for weeks or even months?"
His party leader, the Rev. Ian Paisley, said at a press conference he thought the IRA would try to kill a member of Parliament to retaliate for the death of MP Bobby Sands. He urged Protestants to stay calm. He added that the rest of the world did not understand the actual position of Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.