Who Rules Northern Ireland Now? IRA and Police Clash Over Turf

As historic talks open, Belfast residents ask who will fight crime

THE bombings, the random shootings, and the robberies-for-funds have temporarily stopped in Northern Ireland under a cease-fire, and they may end altogether if peace talks opening today succeed.

But another kind of violence goes on - the Irish Republican Army acting as a policeman within Catholic areas, brutally ``punishing'' those accused of ``antisocial activity.''

Gavin Smyth, a teenager from Catholic Anderstown, was severely beaten by the IRA six weeks ago. His attackers said he was stealing cars and speeding.

``They used an iron bar. They got him to roll over three times so they could attack his legs from every side,'' said his father.

Such IRA policing is likely to be one of the thorniest issues facing representatives of the British government and Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, as their historic negotiations begin here in Belfast, the provincial capital of Northern Ireland.

While the larger question of British rule lies in the background, the talks are to explore how Northern Ireland can be peacefully governed. And key to peaceful governance will have to be universal acceptance of the rule of law.

The official police force is the Royal Ulster Constabulary, supported by the British Army. For the past 25 years, both were classified ``legitimate targets'' by the IRA. Police traveled in armored Landrovers with military patrols.

Since the IRA began its cease-fire Sept. 1, the RUC has begun to change its image. In the center of the city, flak jackets that bulked large under every uniform have disappeared. Even some of the Landrovers have changed color from battle grey to a softer blue or green with white. The RUC is reported to be having private meetings with various groups looking for a way to begin community policing.

But in some Catholic neighborhoods, the IRA continues to be the force with authority. There have been about 2,000 people beaten or shot as punishment by the IRA since violence erupted in the British-controlled province in 1969. The shooting has now stopped, since it could be considered a violation of the cease-fire. But there have been 20 beatings since the Sept. 1 truce.

Also, many here fear that the heavily armed and 93-percent Protestant police force will not be able to earn the allegiance of minority Catholics, who make up close to 40 percent of the population. Many of them see the RUC as a weapon of unequal treatment and are calling to have it reformed or disbanded.

Northern Ireland's security secretary John Wheeler lays the blame for poor Catholic representation in the RUC squarely on the IRA. ``I'd like to know,'' he says, ``whether they have lifted their death threats against members of the Catholic community from joining the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Despite the threat, nearly eight percent of the RUC is from a Catholic background.''

BUT the RUC's impartiality has been under question for decades. Charges of RUC mistreatment of pro-republican prisoners brought the attention of Amnesty International, the human rights organization. A British government inquiry in 1990 showed collusion between some members of the RUC and loyalist paramilitary groups.

Explains Seamus Mallon, deputy head of the Social Demcratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the largest grouping representing Catholics in Northern Ireland, the force is ``93 percent Protestant, but 100 percent loyalist.''

Social worker Michael Fenton works in the harsh working-class neighborhood at the foot of Falls Road. He understands why some Catholics support the IRA's role in policing, although he feels the use of terror cannot dispense justice. ``The idea of the IRA in West Belfast is that they are in the community. It is part of the ethos that the IRA are part of the people, and with the people.... Originally, the IRA was trying to take responsibility for the conditions in the community,'' he says.

The problem for the British government as it sits down with Sinn Fein will be to balance the demands of the disaffected Catholic community against the fears of the majority Protestants. Any radical change in the RUC will be seen by those who want the province to stay British as a sign of the green hand of Dublin in Northern Ireland's affairs.

Ken McGuinness, security spokesman for the largely Protestant Ulster Unionist Party, says that 85 to 90 percent of the community ``find the police completely acceptable.... They would not want the police changed to facilitate those who have exercized a veto on democracy through the barrel of a gun over the last 25 years.''

Nancy Gracey decided to speak out on her own against paramilitary punishments four years ago when her son was shot in the leg following a fight with an IRA member. A tiny woman with gray-blond hair, she is the focal point of Families Against Intimidation and Terror. The group's main weapon is publicity, urging those who contact it about harassment to go public.

For Ms. Gracey, the IRA attempt to police is hypocritical: ``The IRA used to use young people to take cars to put bombs in them to bring them into the heart of the city, but when young people began to do that for themselves, they turned on them.''

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