IRA Bombers: Fierce - and Feeble

THE despicable murder last week of Ian Gow, a Conservative member of Britain's Parliament, was the latest blow in a drive by the Irish Republican Army to export its campaign of terror from Northern Ireland to England and continental Europe. Mr. Gow, a friend of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and an outspoken critic of Irish nationalists in Ulster, was killed by a bomb rigged to his car at his home south of London. In recent months, IRA bombers have struck the London Stock Exchange, the home of the Conservative Party treasurer, and a club favored by Conservative leaders. In the last two years, IRA terrorists also have attacked British military installations and personnel in Belgium, the Netherlands, and West Germany.

Meanwhile, extremists continue their grisly work in Northern Ireland. Last month an IRA mine killed three Ulster policemen and, inadvertently, a Roman Catholic nun. (Protestant gunmen have also committed atrocities in the long conflict.)

It's probably no coincidence that the latest wave of violence has come just as a new British political initiative in Northern Ireland has shown gleams of promise. Under the prompting of Peter Brooke, Mrs. Thatcher's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, the major political parties there have been edging toward talks to return a large degree of self-government to Britain's Irish province. But any political settlement other than union with the Republic of Ireland is unacceptable to the IRA.

There's a hint of desperation in the IRA's latest surge. Support for violence seems to be ebbing in Northern Ireland. The IRA has been rebuked by Catholics for the ``mistakes'' that too often have killed innocent people. Sinn Fein, the ultranationalist party that supports the terrorists, won only 11.2 percent of the vote in local elections in Northern Ireland last year.

However righteous the militants (on both sides) view their cause to be, craven murder of unarmed victims - particularly, as in the case of Mr. Gow, those who embody representative democracy - offers no foundation for a just and peaceful future in Northern Ireland. The IRA is bombing itself into meaninglessness. The assassins won't win.

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