From Boston to Belfast: America's focus for the Irish 'troubles'; How much help does the IRA get from here?

Boston's Irishness, like its weather, is everywhere apparent. Names beginning with 0'm take up pages in the phone book. A mailing list of Irish social organizations here numbers about 70. In the 1970 census (when the question was last asked) there were some 60,000 Americans of recent Irish extraction here -- and many times more who trace their ancestry to 19th-century immigrants.

Not surprisingly, then, the city is a lens for events across the Atlantic. The diffuse rays of heat generated by the tormented circumstances of Northern Ireland are focused, here, into burning issues. In recent months, especially, the spectacle of the suicide, by starvation, often prisoners who were members of the illegal Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) has stirred up deep feelings.

Yet many well-meaning local Irish-Americans remain confused. They are caught between the sentimental views of the IRA (that these men are nationalists engaged in a civil-rights protest) and the more Realpolitikm view of the government of the Republic of Ireland (that they are barbarous terrorists dedicated to destroying the governments of both the north and the south).

The issue has woven itself into such a subtle and complicated web that reason and sentiment have become thoroughly entangled. Three questions help unwind it: What is the relationship between Boston and Northern Ireland concerning money? Propaganda? Violence?

First, money. In recent years, Boston has sent increasingly large amounts back to Ireland. Most prominent of the fund-raising organizations is the Irish Northern Aid Committee, known as Noraid. Noraid's local organizer. Hull schoolteacher James Fitzpatrick, says the funds go exclusively to the families of prisoners, who each get $:22 (about $40) a week.

Not quite so simple, says the US Department of Justice. Noraid, registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act in 1971, has to submit its accounts to the government every six months. On May 1, a federal judge in Manhattan, citing an allegation that the group failed to disclose the destination of more than $1 million, ruled that Noraid is an agent of the IRA. He was, in fact, agreeing with the former taoiseach (prime minister) of Ireland, Charles J. Haughey, who last summer announced that he had "clear and conclusive evidence" that Noraid "has provided support for the campaign of violence."

Where does the money come from? Some is nickel-and-dime stuff, hat-passings at the rallies that have sprung up around Boston in recent months. Those closer to the inside, however, say that most of it comes in large donations from Irish-Americans grown prosperous in business. They are generally law-abiding citizens, many of whom would vote domestically for a tough crackdown on crime. But, out of touch with the views of the Dublin government, they see Ireland through the dark glass of 1920, when the IRA (then a very different group) was battling for Irish independence.

Since the death of hunger striker Bobby Sands May 5, donations to Noraid have grown. The American contribution, however, may still be only 15 to 20 percent of the IRA's total funding, which still depends heavily on bank heists in the Republic. More important to the terrorists than the dollar is the feeling that America is behind them. As Dublin Mayor Fergus O'Brien said on a recent visit to New York with the mayor of Belfast, "it is the moral support terrorists feel they have from Americans, and the financial aid from here, we hope to change."

Over the years, Dublin and Belfast have also sent a steady flow of guerrilla sympathizers into Boston. Their function raise funds by preaching to the already converted. Now, however, they are spreading the net more widely. As Ted Smith of the Irish Embassy in Washington notes, "They are making inroads with people whose normal disposition is to say, 'I've no time for violence.'" Coming not only for funds, they now come to propagandize.

Evidence of a propaganda push among elected officials here predates the hunger strikes:

* September 1980: The Boston City Council and the Massachusetts House of Representatives issued official statements honoring one Francis McCann of Belfast, who came to drum up support for the jailed guerrillas. As he spoke with Gov. Edward J. King (and later held a press conference), the US Immigration and Naturalization Service was on his trail. He had, it seems, entered the country illegally.

* May 1981: The House passed a resolution honoring Bobby Sands and "wholeheartedly" supporting "the ultimate objectives of the IRA."

* June 1981: With a former cellmate of Bobby Sands sitting near the rostrum, the House adopted a resolution calling for the withdrawal of British Consul General Philip McKearney from Boston unless his government agreed to the "five demands" of the IRA prisoners.

* July 1981: The Boston City Council placed a referendum question on next fall's ballot urging President Reagan to "do all in his power to effect the withdrawal of all English military forces from Northern Ireland."

Also growing: the number of meetings and rallies designed to paint the British as the terrorists and the IRA as the fighters for civil rights. The newest group, the H-Block Armagh Committee, is a coalition of both Irish and non-Irish groups. It has won support from Hispanic leader Felix Arroyo, from Themba vilakazi of the guerrilla-based African National Congress of South Africa , and from the radical National Lawyers' Guild.

Crucial to the success of the propaganda movements is its capacity to reduce the complexities of Ulster to such bumper-stickerish slogans as "Brits Out." Oddly enough, however, the propaganda thrust may carry the seeds of its own reform. As American support widens, the IRA may have to moderate its stance or risk losing its audience. Will it evolve out of terrorism into diplomacy -- following the lead of Robert Mugabe's organization in Zimbabwe or Yasser Arafat's PLO?

There are signs that it is already doing so. The other day a newly elected Belfast city councillor, Fergus O'Hare, sought me out to talk about "the troubles" and the IRA, whose goals he supports. In him one could sense a shift from sentiment to something like logic -- which, if it grows, may even broaden into diplomacy. Will it grow? Or are the guerrillas so wedded to their vision of Ireland as a nation of violence, and so fragmented in their structure that they will founder on their own internal divisiveness? The answer might be clearer in Boston than in Belfast, as the terrorists select the kind of individuals they send actoss the Atlantic.

Even as the propaganda grows more strident, however, observers note that the crowds supporting the rallies are dwindling. Considering Boston's Irishness, they were in fact never very large. The death of each striker draws less media attention. Will the protesters, frustrated by lack of coverage, turn increasingly to violence?

That has already happened. The Beacon Hill residence of British Consul General McKearney has been the scene of well-staged protests, which have occasionally included City Councillor Raymond Flynn. Slogans have been painted, the consul's door spray-painted, and at least four bricks hurled through windows. The police, even when present, failed to stop the damage. Last week, finally, Mayor Kevin H. White responded to appeals for protection of diplomatic premises -- the very kind of protection which, when it was withdrawn from the American Embassy in Tehran, enraged Bostonians. He has now directed the police commissioner to keep protesters off Chestnut Street.

Is the violence indigenous? Many think not. Mr. McKearney (who, like many Englishmen, is of Irish descent) talks of encountering protest leaders on his doorstep with beards, black berets, combat jackets, and "broad Irish accents" -- paid agitators, he thinks, recently sent over from Belfast to foment protests.

What can Boston do, then, to bring clarity to this confusion?

Is there a way, first, that generous Irish-Americans can be sure their money is going to nonterrorist purposes? Yes, says former Mayor John Collins: Contribute to the Ireland Fund. The nationwide fund, which has raised $1 million since it began in the mid-70s, has the approval of the Irish Embassy and supports Irish projects involving culture, peace, and charity.

Second, what about the propaganda? Most of it is based on two premises: that Ireland's difficulties can be traced to the British, and that answers must be instantaneous. From these notions spring the contention that the IRA terrorists are the good guys. What is needed is a much greater effort -- by the vast majority of responsible middle-class Irish-Americans who deplore violence -- to demand more than simple answers. It is not enough to allow the steretypes of nationalism -- sympathy for or hatred of either the British or the Irish -- to dictate the solution to problems which, at bottom, affect individuals regardless of nationally. The more one talks with the people involved -- as I have both here and, last year, in Belfast -- the more one realizes that a quality most needed, a word most frequently used, is patience.

And the violence? Terrorism has no future without it. So its perpetrators have little interest in ending the conflict -- and have resolutely tried to interfere with British-Irish and Protestant-Catholic initiatives. Yet common to all sides -- as responsible church leaders on both sides are increasingly realizing -- remains the promise that must eventually overrule the terrorism. It is a promise which remains as true for Boston as for Belfast: that, in the words of Isaiah, "Violence shall no more be heard in thy land, wasting nor destruction within thy borders."

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