Sinn Fein leader talks politics but defends IRA terror tactics

Outwardly, all looks the same: boulders on the sidewalk and black iron screens to protect walls and doors from bomb blasts, security cameras, threadbare walls, floors bare except for flattened cardboard boxes.

But behind the facade, the image has changed. The Sinn Fein, political wing of the Provisional Irish Republican Army which is attempting to drive the British from Northern Ireland, is trying hard to appear more democratic these days.

It is engaged in a long, tough struggle to win nationalist Catholic support away from the moderate Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party led by John Hume. Sinn Fein now has 12 ''advice centers'' in Belfast.

It has gained some ground, a sign that opinion continues to polarize here.

In a long interview, the party's chairman for the Belfast area, Joe Austin, emphasized repeatedly that the Sinn Fein was trying to work through the electoral system to build on the base of 102,701 votes it won in the British general elections last June.

''Sinn Fein electoral support has been growing ever since Bobby Sands and other hunger-strikers defied the British government in 1981,'' Mr. Austin said.

Five Sinn Fein members now sit in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and Austin stressed their work in taking constituents' housing and electricity problems to the Ulster government run by the British under direct rule.

At the same time, he toned down socialist rhetoric used by the party in the past to describe its ultimate view of a ''democratic socialist Ireland.'' He claimed Sinn Fein envisaged a mildly left-wing Ireland in line with the views of former British Labour Party leader Michael Foot. Banks would not be nationalized. Elections would be held. Education would become purely secular.

Austin did say he inclined to the views of hard-left spokesman Tony Benn on some issues, but he scoffed at allegations that Sinn Fein ideals were Marxist.

Some three years ago it was a much more tense and defiant Joe Austin who talked to me at the height of the hunger-strike campaign by Bobby Sands and other IRA prisoners in the Maze prison. Sands attracted worldwide attention because he had been elected to the British House of Commons by nationalist support. He demanded recognition as a political prisoner in the Maze. The Thatcher government refused, and he starved to death in May 1981.

But the Sinn Fein has not changed its basic two-track approach to fighting for a British withdrawal. The electoral side is only one of those tracks.

The other is terrorist violence. That continues - aimed against British soldiers and Ulster police in the north and against political and military targets in Britain itself. Between Jan. 1, 1969, and June 30, 1983, republican paramilitary groups killed 1,264 people.

(Another 613 were killed by loyalist (Protestant) paramilitary groups, and 264 by government security forces. In 163 cases insufficient information was available to show who was responsible.)

Joe Austin spoke with detailed knowledge of IRA terrorist tactics, echoing the theme struck by Sinn Fein assemblyman Danny Morrison in 1981: ''We go forward, an armalite (machine gun) in one hand, and a ballot paper in the other.''

He defended the recent killing of Ulster politician Edgar Graham. Mr. Graham was shot in an ambush, and his death aroused intense Protestant anger.

Austin dismissed it tersely. ''Graham had openly called on the British to shoot IRA forces to kill,'' he said. ''Also, two unarmed IRA men had been shot by the British SAS forces just before. At least Graham was carrying a gun when he was shot. . . .''

A frequent IRA tactic is to keep border and other rural areas in a state of fear. Part-time members of the Ulster Defense Regiment (UDR) are shot near their homes. Protestant supporters organize a large funeral, sometimes carrying the coffin for miles to rally support and heighten anti-Roman Catholic feeling.

Some killings occur on the government side as well. A number of UDR members have been arrested and charged with murder in the Armagh area. Several Ulster police have also been charged.

But the scale of IRA violence is larger. Protestant paramilitary groups have been lying low in recent months, partly because the IRA has been hard-hit by the evidence of a number of former members now turned police informers.

The Provisional IRA, on the other hand, vows to keep bombing targets in Ireland and in Britain. The Jan. 5 edition of An Phoblacht/Republican News quotes an IRA spokesman as saying terrorism will continue against the British.

The 303-mile land border with the Irish Republic remains a particular problem for both London and Dublin. It is crossed by 297 roads, about half of which are closed. Checkpoints block some others, but there are plenty of unguarded gaps.

''We decided to run candidates for the assembly to show that we had support, '' Austin said. ''Why do people vote for us? Well, perhaps they support our fight against the British forces. . . . When the Thatcher government took a tough line against the hunger-strikers, opinion hardened here and our support grew. . . .

''Our main task now is to solidify our support. We will contest the European parliamentary elections later this year and the British local government elections next year.''

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