A hatred that will keep Ulster's terror machine running smoothly: David McKittrick finds that in its northern ghettos the IRA retains a fanatical support

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The Independent Online
AT A TIME when an unaccustomed ray of hope is just beginning to break through in Britain and in Dublin, it is sad to have to report that in the backstreets of Belfast the omens for peace are distinctly unpromising.

The killings of the children in Warrington have undoubtedly damaged the IRA. The organisation has always appreciated that causing civilian casualties of this kind is counter-productive, and it has generally tried to avoid them.

But it operates within narrow constraints, being so wedded to the concept of violence that it gives itself little room for manoeuvre. It starts from the premise that it must use bombs and bullets, and the only real debate seems to concern where, when and how to use them to maximum effect.

Its leaders will argue heatedly that the Warrington bombs were not meant to kill anyone. But they will not take the point that when dozens of such bombs are let off, as they have been in England over the past year, then inevitably people are going to die.

The occasional 'bad' bombings such as Warrington are viewed as serious but surmountable setbacks, a long line of which has been survived by the IRA. The La Mon House bombing of 1978, when the IRA killed 12 people in a restaurant near Belfast, and the 1987 Remembrance Day bombing which killed six men and five women in Enniskillen, are just two examples among many.

When the IRA army council comes to consider the lessons of Warrington they will, if the past is any guide, conclude that what are needed are better warnings, more selective targeting, better bombs. They will not decide that the bombings should stop.

For 20 years and more IRA leaders have stuck to the belief that force is the way to achieve their aims. The deaths of two children in an English town will not deflect them from what they see as their life's work. Their main regret will probably be a feeling that Warrington will simply make their long war that much longer.

The ferment of factors which gives the IRA life is still there: the sense of tradition, memory of British misdeeds, loyalist violence, thirst for revenge, urban deprivation, the feeling that giving up would dishonour their dead and condemn another generation to go through it all again.

These are people who have heard or read, on literally thousands of occasions, condemnations of IRA violence from the British and Irish governments, the churches and almost every sector of society. But they are so alienated from society that the condemnations count for nothing.

What makes them so difficult for the outside world to understand is their profound sense of victimhood. Their unshakeable belief is that Britain, and Ulster loyalists, have visited so much violence on Catholics and republicans over the decades - indeed, over the centuries - that the IRA is involved in a just war. They genuinely feel, after all the IRA's violence, that it is essentially a defensive organisation, and that its methods are justified by the decades of injustices inflicted on Catholics.

Nonetheless, events such as Warrington pose a problem for IRA supporters. Much of the damage has been done on the fringe of the republican movement, among those whose commitment is not so wholehearted, and who are tired of the endless violence. Yet even in this area the IRA was last week rescued by the loyalist extremists who obligingly killed five Catholics: nothing could have been more calculated to send waverers back to the ghetto, and to the supposed protection of the IRA.

The loyalists showed they are as committed to violent methods as the IRA, and are motivated as much by hatred as by any rational consideration of the rectitude or the effects of their activities. Every time they kill a Catholic they drive others towards the IRA.

Yeats wrote, in 'Easter, 1916', that 'too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart'. The years of violence and political failures have hardened the hearts of many people opposed to terrorism, planting cynicism, lack of hope and near-despair in their minds.

In the 1970s a peace movement which flowered dramatically in Belfast lasted only a few years before self-destructing in a welter of bitterness and disagreement. It could hardly have been worse: for 10 years afterwards the two women who founded it, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, would not speak to each other.

That deeply disillusioning experience helps explain why much of Belfast views the movement which has emerged in Dublin with a jaundiced eye. It is in the south, rather than the north, that Warrington has had a real impact, producing a spontaneous reaction against the killings.

The Enniskillen bombing led to a sharp fall in pro-IRA sentiment in the Republic, where its political wing, Sinn Fein, is now polling a dismal 1.7 per cent. Warrington will increase the isolation. Non-violent northern nationalists fear, in fact, that the Republic is in the process of rejecting not just the IRA but the whole northern problem.

The IRA has largely contracted into the northern ghettos, with Warrington contributing to a process which dates back to Enniskillen. The problem is that they are substantial ghettos, with a community spirit and life of their own.

The IRA emerged from that milieu and is still part of that life. Its fringes may be slowly but surely contracting, but it is not being rejected in the ghettos. There it finds thousands who, whatever the outside world may say or do, are still ready to give it shelter, hide its guns, and provide it with recruits for its killing machine.