DESPITE recent hope in peace talks on Northern Ireland, Protestant paramilitary groups there are rapidly recruiting new members and are trying to obtain quantities of explosives, according to British intelligence information.
The new intelligence is spurring the London and Dublin governments to accelerate the Northern Ireland peace process, to prevent open warfare from breaking out between Unionist (Protestant) and nationalist (Catholic) extremists.
British Prime Minister John Major and Albert Reynolds, his Irish counterpart, planned to assess the reports at a meeting in Brussels Dec. 11 and 12. The leaders are concerned, officials say, that Unionist paramilitary groups may be about to switch from a policy of responding to Irish Republican Army (IRA) violence and adopt a strategy of taking initiative.
Until now the two main Unionist paramilitary organizations, the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), have operated with considerably smaller numbers than their Catholic adversaries, the IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), a socialist splinter group set up in 1975. British security sources put the combined strength of the IRA and INLA at about 600. Up to now the UFF and UVF together are thought to have numbered around 250.
The picture appears to be changing rapidly. James Rodgers, an Ulster Unionist member of the British Parliament, says the Protestant paramilitaries, worried that the London and Dublin governments will strike a deal over their heads, are taking urgent steps to build up their numbers.
He claims they have launched a recruitment drive among young unemployed Protestant men in the province and are prepared to use escalating violence to prevent the constitutional status of Northern Ireland being changed. The UVF and UFF, Mr. Rodgers says, ``have come to realize that the only language the British government understands is violence.''
Intelligence reaching Belfast and London also suggests that Protestant paramilitaries are setting out to gain access to explosives. Until now, in contrast to the IRA and the INLA, the Protestant groups have made little use of explosive devices and have concentrated on revenge killings, using guns.
SECURITY sources suggest that this too may be about to change. The aim of the UVF and UFF, the sources say, is to obtain Semtex and commercial explosives in preparation to carry out terrorist acts like those used for many years by the IRA.
The leader of the Ulster Unionists in Parliament, James Molyneaux, has expressed concern about the trend. Last month he began speaking of worries among the middle-class Protestants in Northern Ireland that Britain might be willing to throw their support behind Irish unification.
Reports in Belfast say that Unionist paramilitaries have been approaching Protestant businessmen for financial help. Mr. Molyneaux's remarks were seen as a veiled warning that some Protestant businessmen might agree to supply the funds.
Molyneaux is eager to defuse tensions between opposing paramilitary groups and to persuade the UVF and UFF that an escalation of violence would deepen an already serious crisis.
Rodgers claims that ``thousands'' of young Protestants are being recruited into paramilitary groups, but his remarks are seen by the British government as exaggerated. There can, however, be no denying the anxious mood of Protestant extremists.
This year in Northern Ireland, according to government figures, killings so far carried out by Protestant paramilitaries number 46, compared with 33 by the IRA. All the killings by Protestants were the work of gunmen, whereas the IRA continues to rely heavily on bombs. Bombs containing up to 2,000 pounds of explosives are routinely planted by the IRA and have been used on the British mainland as well as in Northern Ireland.
The prospect of the UVF and UFF acquiring an arsenal comparable to that known to be available to the IRA is calculated to cause alarm in London and Dublin.