IRA Bombing Marks Internal Power Shift to Radicals

AT Crossmaglen, close to the border of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, the IRA has put up a signpost saying "Business as usual." People in the area know exactly what it means.

The scrawled message confirms that the attacks that began Feb. 9 in London signify a return to a sustained campaign of terror.

A bomb on a double-decker bus exploded in central London Sunday, killing one person in the third attack by the Irish Republican Army in nine days. On Feb. 20, Scotland Yard said police had seized explosives and bombmaking equipment in London.

British intelligence sources indicate that the renewed violence is explained partly by a power shift in the IRA. Reports say representatives from the IRA's more radical southern command, based in Ireland, have displaced northern command activists in the movement's army council - its top decisionmaking body.

Analysts suggest that a mix of frustration and the radical ideology of self-appointed "freedom fighters" lies behind the violence. The overall picture that emerges is of a terrorist group whose frustrations overshadow its ability to set out realizable political goals.

The IRA's real powerbrokers now apparently are located in or near Dublin, close to the organization's so-called engineering department, which arranges bomb attacks and supplies the necessary equipment.

Eamonn Mallie, a leading Northern Ireland commentator based in its capital, Belfast, says the IRA believed the terms of the August 1994 cease-fire would "allow them, through their representatives in Sinn Fein, to gain a place at the conference table.

"But that did not happen," he says. "What we are seeing now is the application of the dynamic of violence to try to force Prime Minister John Major to focus on what the IRA sees as the political problem in Northern Ireland."

Historians point to deeper reasons for the IRA's reversion to violence. Sabine Wichert of Queen's University, Belfast, notes that since the 1970s the IRA has blended two streams of thought in determining its policies.

The "old republican nationalist tradition of violence against the state" has been reinforced by "left-wing ideology" based in Marxism.

British security sources say the "southern command" of the IRA is believed to be dominated by young, politically radicalized republican activists.

Practical obstacles

But a readiness to mix nationalist-motivated violence with revolutionary politics does not explain what, in practical terms, the IRA hopes to achieve by reverting to a campaign of bombing.

In the past, it has pressed for a united Ireland. But successive Dublin governments in the past 20 years have made it clear that they no longer favor a merger of the north with the south - mainly for economic reasons - despite clauses in Ireland's Constitution laying claim to the north.

Nor have London governments encouraged IRA members to think that, in Mr. Major's often-repeated phrase, they can "bomb their way to the conference table," and the House of Commons Feb. 19 renewed legislation giving police special powers to deal with suspected terrorists.

Unionist politicians in Northern Ireland, who want to maintain British rule of the province, have often said that the IRA's violent campaign persuaded Britain to agree to the peace process, but Major and his ministers argue that the IRA sought talks because it decided that violence wasn't having the desired effect.

The means becomes an end

"What we are seeing is proof that during the cease-fire the IRA were never interested in renouncing violence," says Andrew Hunter, chairman of the Conservative Party's committee on Northern Ireland in the House of Commons. "We are dealing with people for whom terror may have become an end in itself."

Indications that there has been a drastic power shift in the IRA's army council, and that its "southern command" based in the Irish Republic now make the IRA's decisions, worry the Irish police.

Irish security forces have been "unable to penetrate the small group which runs the engineering department in the south," says Alan Murray, a writer on security affairs. The problem is made worse, he says, by the IRA's standard tactic of frequently changing army council membership and ensuring that individual operational cells are kept ignorant of what other cells are doing.

Meanwhile, says Paul Rogers, an antiterrorism specialist at Bradford University near Leeds, the IRA can be expected to pursue a policy of "alternating attacks on major economic targets with smaller operations aimed at creating maximum alarm and confusion."

The Feb. 9 bomb attack on London's financial district, Rogers says, is in the first category. A small explosive device found and defused two days later in a phone kiosk in London's theater district is in the second.

"All this means that we can look forward to a very difficult time," Mr. Rogers concludes.

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