Tuesday's funeral for three IRA terrorists turned into a melee as three people lost their lives and 23 were reported injured. Police are holding a man suspected of carrying out the gun-and-grenade attack on the crowds that thronged the funeral route in Belfast yesterday.
Most of the estimated 10,000 mourners were believed to be sympathizers of the ``provisional'' wing of the outlawed Irish Republican Army. The Roman Catholic IRA, as it is known, has waged a long and violent campaign to rid Northern Ireland of British rule, and unite with the Republic of Ireland.
The bodies of the three IRA terrorists - Mairead Farrell, Daniel McCann, and Sean Savage - had been flown from Gibraltar to Dublin and then driven to Belfast amid unprecedented scenes of IRA support. The three IRA members had been shot and killed by British forces on March 6 in Gibraltar, while allegedly setting up a bomb for a terrorist attack in the British possession.
Thousands of people paid their last respects at Dublin airport in the Irish Republic, and at Newry, just north of the border. However, outside Belfast the cortege was stoned by Northern Ireland loyalists. The loyalists - made up largely of the region's Protestant majority - want to retain ties to Britain. Some analysts here contend that the IRA and its legal political wing, Sinn Fein, have attempted to turn the Gibraltar setback into a propaganda victory. The elaborate funeral arrangements, they say, aimed to make martyrs of the dead by bringing thousands of sympathizers onto the streets and attracting the attention of the world news media.
The death of Farrell and her two companions is seen as a serious blow to the IRA, which has now lost six activists this year.
Two other ``volunteers,'' Brendan Burns and Brendan Moley, died in a premature explosion Feb. 29. Kevin McCracken, another IRA activist, was shot dead by British troops in West Belfast shortly before the bodies of the Gibraltar three arrived back in Belfast. Security forces said a high-powered rifle had been recovered beside McCracken's body.
The IRA's recent losses suggest that British intelligence is now a major threat to their activities. Amid preparations for the funeral, IRA members have been holding a top level inquiry behind the scenes to find out how British intelligence agents pin-pointed their unit which was trapped by the crack Special Air Service in Gibraltar.
The trio had been under surveillance for some time, and the British troops say they opened fire in Gibraltar because they believed they were in danger of attack. IRA members confirmed later the three had been on a ``mission.''
There was widespread criticism, however, in Ireland, and from a minority of British members of Parliament, who said the IRA trio should and could have been taken alive.
The loss of the six IRA members this year is the latest in a long series of setbacks. Last May eight activists were shot dead at a border stake-out when they tried to storm a police station and were met with intensive automatic-weapons' fire from security forces lying in wait.
In the autumn a large consignment of Libyan arms bound for the IRA in Ireland was intercepted by the authorities off the French coast. In November there was widespread revulsion when 11 people died in an IRA blast in Enniskillen.
Another threat to IRA terrorists is the regrouping within the ranks of loyalist Protestant paramilitaries, the Ulster Defense Association. Last Friday its long-time leader, Andy Tyrie, was ousted. Some rank-and-file members said the leadership had gone ``soft,'' and others pointed to embarrassing and serious setbacks, including the exposure of racketeering within the group, and the discovery of a large arms cache by the police in recent months.
Before yesterday's violence, the new leadership of the outlawed Ulster Defense Association had warned of a renewed campaign by Ulster ``freedom fighters'' against the IRA, but said ``no innocent Catholic'' need fear.