London — The prison breakout of 38 convicted terrorists in Northern Ireland is seen as an attempt by the provisional IRA to regain momentum after a series of setbacks. In recent months, a network of informers has led to trials of a number of leading figures in the provisional Irish Republican Army. The breakout itself, in which 38 terrorists escaped from Belfast's Maze prison, was in fact a recognition by the provisional IRA that it has been hard pressed, and an effort to regain headlines.
At this writing, 17 men had been recaptured in a massive search, leaving 21 still at large. All had been convicted for charges ranging from the murder of a policewoman to other terrorist crimes.
This is the kind of scene the provisional IRA faced as the breakout was being planned: The network of informers, known here as ''supergrasses,'' has been remarkably effective (as well as controversial, with civil libertarians, some Protestants, and many Roman Catholics condemning it).
Reportedly almost 300 people have been arrested or convicted on the strength of information from about 30 ''supergrass'' informers.
The informers receive police protection, stay in hiding, and are later given new identities and homes to protect them from retaliation.
If that was not bad enough for the IRA, Protestant politicians and a senior police officer have been claiming that the IRA is virtually beaten.
The leader of the Official Unionist Party, James Molyneaux, even predicted an end to the worst of the IRA violence within a year if the system kept working.
He rejected criticism that police should not be in the business of buying information and offering virtual immunity as well. ''It's a small price to pay, . . .'' he says.
According to Monitor contributor Alf McCreary in Belfast, such comments made it necessary for the IRA to stage a spectacular riposte. The IRA has also been upstaged by the politics of bread, butter, and jobs. Finding a job has become such a major preoccupation throughout Ulster that the IRA has been receiving less attention than usual.
So many international companies are pulling out of Northern Ireland that Protestant leader Ian Paisley and Catholic John Hume have just been in the US trying to attract new investment.
In addition, security forces on both sides of the border have been increasingly effective in their campaign against terrorism.
On the political side, the Northern Ireland Assembly, set up in 1982, has not collapsed, as many predicted, but continues to provide a focus for Protestant pressure on London. Its committees investigate government departments in Belfast.
Because Mr. Hume and his Social Democratic and Labour Party refuse to take their seats, the Assembly has little actual power. But it keeps on making news.
In Ireland, the governing Fine Gael Party of Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald is working on a blueprint for Irish unity with Mr. Hume and two Irish opposition parties, the Fianna Fail and the Irish Labour Party.
Protestants in the north dismiss this Catholic grouping, called the New Ireland Forum, as dangerously utopian. Yet by early next year it plans to produce a document that is likely to stir up heated debate.
It is working on three ideas: the standard plan of a United Ireland governed from Dublin; sovereignty of all Ireland to be shared by London and Dublin as a way of assuaging the fears of Protestant and Catholic alike; and a federal Ireland, with regional parliaments in Belfast and Dublin.
Prime Minister FitzGerald wants progress, as does the newly reelected Margaret Thatcher in London. The two are to meet in London in November. Both recognize the formidable opposition from Ulster unionists and conservative Irish Catholics.
Mr. Fitzgerald realizes that Ulster Protestants find the republic's ban on divorce and abortion alien, and he would like to change the republic's image. But conservative Catholics resist him. They have just won their fight to make abortion not just a crime, but a constitutional crime, in the south.
Faced with all this movement running counter to its own cause, the IRA has won its longed-for headlines with the latest jailbreak.