6 SEPTEMBER 1975, Page 10


The do-it-yourself war

Rawle Knox

When, you may ask, is a ceasefire not a ceasefire? In Ireland the answer is when someone in the bloody crowd blows the restart whistle. That answer has long since broken the patience of the Northern Ireland Protestants, and may well do the Same to the British public. When the Provisional IRA last January declared its ceasefire, which it likes to call a truce, Merlyn Rees knew the risks he was running because the Army, then well on top of the Provos, must almost have deafened him in the recital of them. He went ahead with admirable firmness. Nevertheless, it was a remarkable state of affairs. In effect the Provos were saying: "We, an armed and illegal rebel gang, will stop shooting at government forces and blowing up buildings. We won't say for how long; and we reserve the right to have a crack at the lawful forces any time we think they are being nasty to our boys." In return for that promise alone the government stopped hunting wanted terrorists through Catholic areas and released a number of others from detention.

During the past eight months there have been several brutal murders of policemen, one very nasty bombing of soldiers and innumerable armed attacks on the defence forces. Sometimes the Provos have declared haughtily that these incidents were retaliations for the unbearable harassment of the soldiery, sometimes that not they, but others unknown, were responsible. Either assertion satisfies the consciences of Catholics, north and south (still, I believe, a majority), who inwardly cannot help sympathising with war against the British, but like a good, moral excuse for murder. Meanwhile the tribal killings of civilians, allegedly outside the IRA's little war, grew to surpass those of the previous year. Now we have Caterham, London and the bombings that may lie ahead.

The truth is that it no longer matters what the Provos say, any more than the condemnations of church leaders, governmental appeals to reason or the anguished threats of politicians matter. The Provo 'communiqués' were always given , greater newsweight than they scaled. There is of course still a Provisional IRA organisation, as there is one for the Official IRA, and for that quarrelsome enzyme the Irish Republican Socialist Party. There are also convenient and different cover titles for gangs that get together for a drink on Friday night and then go out to do some shooting and bombing. There are too many guns around for the organisations, which have been loosened by separations of leaders, any longer to have strict control; too many bank robberies done for the sake of the cause where the spoils have been dubiously divided so that loyalties are stricken by suspicion. And the same self-made traps that have ensnared the Catholic gun-groups also entangle the Protestant `para-military organisations', which are more numerous and even more divided.

When Merlyn Rees says there is not civil war in the North (of which the bombings in England are a projection) that is merely a matter of definition. There are areas, not only in Belfast, where the atmosphere prickles with war. Far too many people are engaged in killing one another. They have noticed it in Dublin, Liam Cosgrave, the Irish Prime Minister, has drawn the attention of the British Ambassador — in case the matter should have escaped him — to the state of violence in the North.

The day of the Caterham bombing I was driving along some of the roads of south Armagh. Around Newtown Hamilton there's something almost Japanese about the landscape. The fields are smaller than they should be, the trees stunted. Brooding cattle look as though they'll never grow large enough to qualify for the CAP intervention price. The cottages are tiny and you would expect dwarf-men to bob out under the lintels, if any men' were to be seen; but you can drive for miles and miles without sighting any moving creatures save the beasts. The military divert you around Newtown Hamilton so that the little market town, squat among hills that sheltered cutthroats for centuries, can be protected from the possible car-bomber. I've never seen any military on the long lonely roads beyond the town, but that hardly surprises me, though it seems to surprise the ever edgy Ulster politicians.

On a twelve-mile east-west stretch of the border just north of the Republic's Dundalk (the border itself is longer of course, because it zig-zags) there are twenty-five cross-frontier roads. Only three are officially 'approved,' but the rest are quite negotiable, especially if one has the use of a car either side of the border. Upon these hills and into these valleys fear has intruded, like sudden miasma. Normally, I would guess, Ulster could claim the most open-door society in the world. Often it's politer to walk straight into a farmhouse than to knock, for whoever may be at home is almost certainly doing a job that cannot immediately be left. Now you will find locked doors, and you stare through cramped window panes at children who gaze out like goldfish that have only one lesson surely learned: don't let strangers into the bowl.

The method of war (pace, M. Rees) is to spread the infection of fear. The IRA has said it

will destroy one Protestant farm in south Armagh for every Catholic killed; earlier the UVF stated that each of their 'battalions (six or seven) in Armagh would slay one Catholic for each Protestant murdered. In a civilised society? A fellow in Dundalk started for no reason to ask me about Angola, and I tried to explain. "Sounds like south Armagh," he said. I myself do not believe that a campaign of terror will drive people from farms that are their total existence, any more than an IRA bombing campaign in Britain will cause a surrender at Westminster. But you discover in south Armagh that living with sustained fear, even if you are accustomed to empty space and loneliness, is every whit as bad as sudden panic in a city.

All that sustains the killers in Northern Ireland is the belief that the British, sooner or later, are going to pull out. Merlyn Rees keeps sounding off his denials, poor man, and each time sounds less convincing. Republican gunsters only keep themselves in action with the conviction that the British are going. If the Brits depart without more ado the rebels will have done de Valera's work for him, and no future Dublin government will be 'able to disregard them. As for Belfast businessmen, they have read and noted the arrangements for Ulster shipyards and aircraft factories, which are different from those made in the rest of the UK. The 'loyalists,' above the gun-belt or below it, cannot see any British government offering them the kind of Ulster they want as a Protestant haven, and so prepare for the worst.

South of the border live Liam Cosgrave and his government, faced by Jack Lynch and an Irish-wise opposition. They all think the British are getting ready to leave, too, but they are still unprepared for it. Solemn demands that the British exercise their responsibility for govern ment in the North sound strangely (if, in fact, quite reasonably) from politicians who for years have been damning the British for being there anyway. It is only very recently that a number of thinking Irish have concluded that the British, in the North, are fighting the Republic's war for her, by distracting minds that might be dissecting society closer home.

That is hardly the line for Harold Wilson to take with Liam Cosgrave, but it does seem that London might be consulting Dublin more about

what is intended for the future of Ulster. There has been little informative interchange of late.

You would care about this if you lived in south Armagh; or near whatever place next gets bombed in England.