Standoff in NORTHERN IRELAND
Though security forces and guerrillas have been fighting a brutal war here for the past 12 years, none of the combatants seems to lack the will to continue.Skip to next paragraph
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The British Army has suffered 344 dead and 3,438 wounded, yet it carries on as it has done in the many antiterrorist campaigns Britain has fought since 1945 in such places as Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, and Aden.
But if British troops are demonstrating their traditional resilience, so, too , is the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA), observers here point out.
The claim that the "corner is being turned in the war against the terrorists, " made by Roy Mason when he was secretary of state for Northern Ireland in 1977, bears an uncanny resemblance to Pentagon pronouncements during the Vietnam war. In fact the IRA is still very active.
One of its "active service units" recently killed a soldier on the border and attacked a British Army post in west Belfast's Whiterock Road, lobbing seven homemade mortar shells at it from the back of a truck. Four shells exploded in the camp, slightly wounding five soldiers. A small boy was seriously injured by shrapnel another shell that stuck neighboring houses. After the mortar attack, troops and terrorists fought a gun battle, the IRA reportedly using US-made Armalite rifles.
In addition three policemen and a policewoman had a narrow escape in Londonderry last month when their Land-Rover was rocked by an explosion set off in a derelict building.
The IRA is not lacking in bombmaking materials, it appears. An Army foot patrol recently discovered 560 pounds of explosives packed into seven milk churns near Greencastle, County Tyrone. The massive bomb, placed in a culvert beneath a road used frequently by the security forces, would have been fired electrically from a hill 100 yards away. An Army explosives expert took seven hours to defuse it.
In early June an Army bomb disposal team spent some tense hours at a farm in the village of Camlough near Bessbrook neutralizing 700 pounds of explosives that had been discovered under a pile of dung.
In the violent ebb and flow of the guerrilla war, the IRA has probably gained the propaganda initiative in recent weeks. The Army concedes that the drive against it received something of a "setback" after the deaths in May of hunger strikers Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, and Patsy O'Hara.
Indeed Irish-Americans are thought to have dug deeper into their pockets on behalf of the IRA as a result of their deaths and may continue to do so following the deaths earlier this month of hunger strikers Joe McDonnell and Martin Hurson.
If many British troops loathe service in Ulster, and many of them do -- as much for its frustration and boredom as its perils -- they generally feel they are performing a necessary though thankless task. "I don't actually hear soldiers complaing," says a Royal Artillery colonel. "There is a great deal of job satisfaction in being here. No day is the same as the next."
But the British Army clearly finds urban counterinsurgency a frustrating business. Officers bewail their inability to bring decisive firepower to bear on the IRA. Nevertheless, the Army's frequent distaste for its Ulster assignment is offset by a fierce professionalism and an intense regimental pride.
While troops continually run the risk of being felled by a sniper or blasted by a bomb in Northern Ireland, there are medals to be won and careers to be made in this war. For gallantry a soldier can be awarded the Military Medal and an officer the Military Cross. Bomb disposal officers with a clear head and a steady hand can win the George Medal.
In addition, a general service medal with a clasp bearing the words "Northern Ireland" is awarded to all soldiers who serve over 30 days in the province. Ironically, the present British commander in Ulster, Maj.-Gen. Richard Lawson has been honored by the Pope. He was named a commander of the Order of St. Sylvester by Pope John XXIII when, attached to the UN Congo force in 1962 and armed only with a swagger stick, he rescued a Belgian priest from a mob.