Standoff in NORTHERN IRELAND

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

While the Protestant community views the British Army's presence in Ulster with appreciation, though feeling it could do more to crush the IRA, Republicans regard it as an occupying force and charge it with persistent harassment and brutality.

"Morale is very, very high," insists a spokesman at the Army's Northern Ireland headquarters at Lisburn near Belfast. He admits, however, that "everyone would like the whole wretched situation to disappear overnight." There are now 10,850 troops in Ulster as opposed to 21,000 in July 1972 during the height of "the troubles."

The Royal Ulster Constabulary, which suffered its 100th fatality recently when two gunmen shot a Roman Catholic constable in a Newry public house, makes similar claims for its morale. Indeed, it maintains that its losses only make the men and women in its ranks more determined to defeat the IRA and that the dangers it faces daily have not adversely affected recruiting.The force, whose armory contains US M-1 carbines, is attempting to increase its numbers by 400 -- to 7,500.

IRA terrorism has also taken the lives of 52 members of the RUC Reserve. Some 4,000 policemen and reservists have been wounded in the current campaign. "It's a long, ongoing struggle," says an RUC spokesman, conceding that the recent escape of eight Provisionals from the Crumlin Road Jail "tends to knock you back a bit."

Despite the fact that the Ulster Defense Regiment (UDR) has lost 114 men, this 7,518-strong, chiefly part-time force is enjoying "excellent" morale, according to Philip Goodhart, parliamentary undersecretary of state for the armed forces. There is a waiting list to join its full-time batallions, he says.

The regiment has taken over many duties from the British Army in what would appear to be an "Ulsterization" of the antiguerrilla campaign. It was called "a heavily armed gang of loyalist bigots" by the Provisional IRA newspaper Republican News last year. The UDR is an almost entirely Protestant force created to replace the RUC's discredited Special Constabulary, or "B Specials," and is reputed to have connections with loyalist paramilitary groups.

For the British Army in Ulster the battle against the IRA has been essentially one of intelligence. Details about the guerrilla army are obtained from the uniformed RUC, informers (who run the risk of being shot through the knees), undercover police and military units, and, it is thought, from telephone tapping and various electronic surveillance techniques. According to Richard McAuley, Provisional Sinn Fein spokesman in the Ulster capital, "Most telephones in west Belfast are bugged."

Although the Army has "lifted" hundreds of IRA terrorists and seized numerous caches of arms and ammunition, information-gathering by its undercover operatives is a dangerous and difficult undertaking.

"To be successful they actually have to be in the areas," explained a member of the IRA's general headquarters staff to Sinn Fein's Iris magazine recently. "They have to infiltrate reasonably tightknit communities. They have to put themselves into surveillance vantage points in either derelict buildings in urban areas or dugouts [trenches] in rural areas."

A further hindrance to intelligence gathering has been the reorganization of the IRa into a cellular format. "The structure which existed before was basically a command structure based on local areas," the senior IRA man told the magazine. "Now we are based on autonomous cells . . . unknown to all but a very small group of people."

But Britain does appear to have successfully employed one clandestine unit in Northern Ireland.London Sunday Times journalist Tony Geraghty in his book about the elite Special Air Service (SAS) entitled "Who Dares Wins" asserts that one of its most "impressive achievements" in Ulster has been its record of arms hauls and terrorist arrests. In Republican circles the regiment, which pulled off a dramatic hostages rescue at the Iranian Embassy in London last year, is regarded as something akin to the hated "Black and Tans" and Auxiliaries, who waged a ruthless campaign against the IRA in 1920-1921. Activist priests Denis Faul and Raymond Murray have accused the unit of over a score of murders.

In tackling the IRA, the Army and police have not only had to take on its hardened gunmen but its women members as well, who place firebombs, gather intelligence, and find shelter for IRA men. Likewise the youth wing of the IRA has fought on its own way -- transporting guns and bombs, staging incidents, carrying messages, and warning of approaching security forces.

To flush the IRA from the Catholic ghettos of Belfast and Londonderry, military experts say, the British Army would have to employ the sort of ruthlessness and widespread torture that French para-troops under Gen. Jacques Massu used when they rooted National Liberation Front terrorists out of the Algiers casbah in 1957 -- tactics wholly unacceptable to the British government.

The Army's official position on its 12-year campaign against IRA guerrillas is that it has "contained them so that the vast majority of the people in the province can live normal lives." But it has no illusions about defeating the terrorist movement, regarding that as the task of politicians, many of whose positions have become increasingly polarized of late.

When it admits that the struggle could "easily" go on for another 12 years, it is perhaps mindful of the top-secret report prepared in 1978 by the intelligence staff of the British ministry of Defense that predicted the IRA "will probably continue to have the manpower they need to sustain violence during the next five years."

The report, which mysteriously fell into IRA hands in 1979, declared, in the words of its author, Brig. [now Maj.-Gen.] James Glover, that "intelligent, astute, and experienced terrorists" provided the organization's backbone. The caliber of the rank and file, it added, did not support the view that they are "mindless hooligans drawn from the unemployed and unemployable." With a disinterested professionalism the brigadier praised the IRA's bombing techniques and improvised mortars, and suggested that it might improve its arsenal by acquiring, among other things, Israeli-made Uzi submachine guns.

General Glover and those he consulted saw little prospect of any political development "which would seriously undermine the Provisionals' position." His report predicted that the IRA would retain sufficient popular support to maintain secure bases in the traditional Republican areas, support that the best efforts of the security forces have failed to eliminate, as Sinn Fein spokesman Richard McAuley points out.

After 12 years of hunting the IRA through the grim working-class districts of Belfast and Londonderry, and through the fields and hedgerows of the border country, the British Army can console itself with the fact that it has become as adept as an army can be at countering revolutionary guerrilla warfare, particularly in an urban context. Though officers recoil at the suggestion it might be used on the mainland to contain any renewed rioting, they do concede that experience in Ulster has uniquely fitted it for such a role.

The British Army in Ulster will fight on as its predecessors did in the jungles of Malaya and the mountains of Cyprus, waiting patiently for a political solution to the bitter conflict.

But the Royal Artillery colonel is not confident that, as yet, there is a solution. "I feel a miracle is required to bring people to their senses," he says.

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