When you ask a taxi driver to take you to 51 Falls Road, he looks at you apprehensively: "That's them, I'll be thinking?" Yes it is: headquarters of the Irish Republican movement, including the Provisional Sinn Fein Party whose military wing is the outlawed Provisional Irish Republican Army. It is the IRA strategy of hunger strikes at the Maze prison, led by Bobby Sands, that has escalated tension here to the highest pitch for 10 years and has again focused world attention on the drab tenement battlefield of West Belfast.
The taxi driver does not really want to go. "They know the number of every car that goes up and down the Falls Road," he says, "I'm a Protestant . . ." But off we go through bleak downtown streets into the slums of Divis Street and its extension, the grim and joyless Falls Road.
I enter the narrow door of No. 51, and climb two flights of unpainted stairs. Walls and floor are dirty. Posters cover the walls. Young men in jeans and beards push in and out.
Joe Austin, a slim, pale-faced young man in a red sweater and black boots, is tired but extremely lucid and articulate. He and chief spokesman Danny Morrison are key figures. With about 200 international TV, radio, and press reporters not far away in the Europa Hotel, it is their job to try to create a favorable world image for the Provisionals.
They explain and define policy, help TV crews obtain film footage, and coordinate IRA strategy toward the media.
While Joe Austin starts by saying he speaks for the Republican movement, which includes other parties besides the Sinn Fein, it quickly becomes clear he also speaks for the Provisionals.
In the long run, he says, the IRA strategy is: to force the British out of Ireland; to have all proposals for the future debated at a special forum; to have the proposals voted on throughout Ireland; and to set up a federal Irish government based on local rule in each of four areas -- Ulster, Munster, Leinster, and Connacht.
He doesn't say so, but in fact the IRA's version of Ulster would include nine counties, not just the six Ulster comprises today. This would boost Roman Catholic numbers considerably. He seems sure the proposed forum and election would choose federation.
The scenario also presupposes a revolution in southern Ireland as well -- a point imperfectly understood abroad.
The president of the Provisional Sinn Fein, Ruari O Bradaigh (pronounced, "Rory O' Brady") in one of his rare public utterances outlined a radical left-wing platform in the Guardian newspaper in London Feb. 18, 1980. He said the government and the opposition in "the 26 counties" (the Republic of Ireland) were as "bankrupt" as British rule in ulster. Clearly, the IRA aims to overthrow the Dublin government as well.
The O Bradaigh platforms stops only a short way from Communism. It calls for nationalization of banking, finance, insurance mining, energy, and more. Worker-owned cooperatives would run agriculture and industry. "Private enterprise would have no place in the key industries," says the platform, approved by the 75th Sinn Fein annual conference in January 1980.
It also wants local authority control of building land and says flatly that the new Ireland would be a "Democratic Socialist Republic . . . antiimperialist . . . anticolonialist." The new Ireland would align itself with the third world and also with those in Europe allegedly "the victims of colonialism." This would include Scotland and Wales.
The platform rejects "the imperialism of the EAst" -- the Warsaw Pact and the communist trade group Comecon -- as well as NATO and the European Community. but the platform's anti-Western tone is evident nonetheless.
One of the posters on Mr. Austin's walls was openly anti-US. It read, "Pax Americana in the Middle East, [Palestinian] self-rule equals continued occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza." Another poster was in Arabic: "PLO," said Mr. austin when I asked. "We identify with the Palestinians, and with freedom fighters in Nicaragua and El Salvador. No, we don't support the Baader-Meinhof people in West Germany or the Red Brigades in Italy. Our long-term aim is change through the ballot box."
He denied outright Protestant charges that the IRA buys Soviet arms from the Qaddafi government in Libya with dollars sent from the US. "We use Western weapons," he said, "Armorlite and Thompson submachine guns, M-1 and M-3 automatic rifles . . . ."
Asked about Soviet Kalashnikov automatic rifles, he replies, "I've never heard the word before . . . but the IRA does buy on the black market, so maybe . . . No, we are not communists. Ireland is a Christian country, and a neutral one. The Irish people would not stand for support from communism."
Why so much IRA violence?
"Every other option has been closed to us. We tried peaceful demonstrations. We tried constitutional politics. The British ignored us. Now we use physical force to tell the world British rule is unacceptable.
"The force is not directed at the Protestant community. Sectarian warfre is immoral and suicidal as well: After all, for a united Ireland, we need a united people."
Speaking while IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands was nearing death, he denied that new wave of violence would follow his funeral. The IRA wanted to focus attention also on the other three hunger strikers. "But if we are provoked . . . ." He shrugged.
British officials scoff at the claim that IRA violence has not been used against civilians. It has been used repeatedly against innocent bystanders, officials say. They cite a gasoline bomb blast at the La Mon restaurant several years ago which killed 12. Bombs at the Abercorn restaurant, bombs at bus stops , car-bombs in city streets, the recent shooting of a census-taker, and many other incidents.
Why was "political status" at the Maze prison so important that Bobby Sands and three colleagues were prepared to die for it?
Austin pointed out that IRA prisoners were in "special category" status from June 1972. They lived in their own compounds, did not work, wore their own clothes, and ran their own lives (about 360 prisoners, all convicted for crimes which took place before March 1, 1976, still have the same status).
"'Special category' was another way of saying 'political status,'" Mr. Austin said.
"In England, IRA prisoners are 'category A' --selves, and have a say about prison work.
"We want this political status in Northern Ireland as well -- no demeaning prison work such as making warders' uniforms -- and the right to wear personal clothing. Already we have won the right to receive one letter a week from home. Now we want the right to associate freely with other prisoners."
British spokesmen reply that IRA prisoners feel guilty, but excuse their guilt by saying they committed their crimes for Ireland.
"Under British law, which makes no provision for political prisoners, they are criminals and are treated as such," said one official.
A number of officials assert that it was a mistake to yield to the 1972 hunger strike and set up the "special category" status which has since been rescinded.
"The issue is who runs the prison," said one official. "We say the prison authorities must do so, not the prisoners still refuse to wear prison clothing or to work. They wear only blankets, although th ey have called off the so-called "dirty protest" in which they refused to clean out their cells.