THANKS to its tight cell organization, the outlawed Irish Republican Army has been cloaked in shadows for over a decade. But its current strategy appears to have broken into broad daylight. The IRA's escalating campaign of violence is taken as confirmation by government and security forces that the group intends to provoke a major reaction from the Northern Irish community.
Its goal is manifold, say informed sources: The IRA wants to prove it is still in business despite nearly 20 years of British counter-terrorist measures. It hopes to put violence at the top of the political agenda during the upcoming review of the Anglo-Irish accord (scheduled for November). It also seems to be goading London into reviving the policy of internment.
IRA violence took a vicious turn in mid-September with a bomb attack on Northern Ireland's most senior civil servant and his family.
Sir Kenneth Bloomfield is the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. He, his wife and teenage son were fortunate to escape when two massive bombs wrecked their home in a quiet suburb near Belfast early Sept. 12. Two other bombs failed to go off. If they had done so, the security forces believe that the Bloomfields would have been killed or badly injured.
Only three days before the attack on Sir Kenneth, the Royal Ulster Constabulary warned that the IRA was planning a ``horrific'' end to 1988. Several factors have led to this dramatic upsurge in IRA violence. Most important, IRA guerrillas are thought to have obtained large quantities of deadly explosives supplied by Libya.
The IRA is having some success with its twin propaganda goals: It has proved it is still in business, despite setbacks earlier this year. And its rash of violence is putting considerable pressure on Britain to reintroduce ``selective internment.''
Internment was last used in 1975. It is a process by which terrorist suspects were imprisoned indefinitely and without trial. The security forces and some Northern Irish Protestant politicians believe circumstances justify the policy's revival. But internment is generally recognized today to have been counterproductive. So far, the government has not been keen to use it and thus hand the IRA a propaganda victory.
The increased IRA violence has also caused a breakdown in talks between the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing. This was an attempt by SDLP leader John Hume to persuade Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams and his senior colleagues that violence is counter-productive.
Mr. Hume argues that violence only hinders efforts to bring about a solution based on a united Ireland. Hume released the text of a letter to Mr. Adams in which he asked if it was not time for the IRA and its supporters to reconsider the methods they have chosen to achieve their goals. Hume asked if they were ``in danger of moving to a situation ... where the methods have become more sacred than the cause?''
Sinn Fein, in turn, suggested that the SDLP was confused about how the Irish should exercise self-determination.
Behind the war of words, it is clear that IRA hardliners have won the argument about the use of violence - for now at least.
Meanwhile, Britain's Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Tom King is still trying bravely to build a bridge between the province's Protestant and Catholic politicians. With similar pluck, Sir Kenneth has said that the attempt on his life will not deter him from doing his duty. His sentiments are echoed by scores of Belfast people who have had to clean up the rubble left by bombs and keep up the signs ``business as usual.''