Caging the godfathers of terror

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THE IRA godfathers who planned the Warrington bombings and are planning sequels to them have reason to be well pleased with this week's responses to their work. The media coverage, in sheer volume, was the best they have achieved for several years.

True, this coverage was accompanied by loud and almost universal condemnation throughout these islands. To be condemned and to be able to carry on in the teeth of condemnation is an index of power.

The IRA godfathers this week have a heady sense of the power that they, a tiny and hated minority, are able to wield over a populous and advanced society. Nor has there been any sign among the responses to Warrington that the long reign of terror may be drawing to an end.

At political level, in both London and Dublin, the responses have been eminently satisfactory from the point of view of the godfathers. Sir Patrick Mayhew and Dick Spring both draw from Warrington the moral that it is urgent to resume the talks about the future of Northern Ireland that have been continuing, off and on, with no visible results whatever, for about two years. More of the same, these spokesmen for the two relevant governments implied, would somehow foil the terrorists.

From this fatuous assumption there were no signs of dissent on the part of any of the political parties in Britain. The upmarket media generally sustained this 'let's talk the IRA to death' consensus. The Guardian this week editorially praised the new Dublin government for 'seeking to resume the painstaking path of negotiations which may isolate the gunmen, and this is the time for that'.

I can see from here the wolfish grin with which that devoted Guardian reader Gerry Adams must have read that editorial recipe for coping with the IRA. Lenin, in his day, acknowledged the help he had received from 'useful idiots' in furthering his conspiracy. The IRA godfathers today can count on numerous and well-placed allies in the same category.

The talks about the future of Northern Ireland serve only one purpose, that of diverting attention from the painful and necessary task of tightening security in such a way as to make life more difficult for the political terrorists, and especially their leaders and planners, the paramilitary godfathers.

There is almost no chance that these talks will result in any agreement between constitutional nationalists and unionists, and even if such an agreement were reached and maintained, it would have no impact whatever on the godfathers.

The talk about 'isolating' them at some future time is the purest wishful thinking, designed to relieve those who use this formula from the need to make or approve any political and legal changes that could counter terrorism in the here and now.

We were told 20 years ago that Sunningdale, with its power-sharing executive and Council of Ireland, would isolate the terrorists and lead to a decline in violence. Sunningdale collapsed, partly as a result of the increased terrorist activity and paramilitary intimidation that accompanied its negotiation and implementation.

Seven years ago we were again assured that the terrorists were about to be isolated, etc. This time it was the Anglo-Irish Agreement that was about to have these benign effects. That agreement is still in force, and terrorism has continued to increase.

The godfathers ask for nothing better than the prevalence, in high places, of this sedative illusion about some future political solution which will end terrorism by isolating the terrorists. That illusion helps the terrorists by inhibiting the authorities from any tightening of the laws.

After Warrington, as after every terrorist spectacular, we are warned against overreaction. The godfathers agree. Continued underreaction, as now, suits them just fine.

There is a nettle that will have to be grasped before the terrorists can be beaten. That nettle is internment. We are told, of course, and often with contemptuous acerbity, that internment has been tried and failed.

The truth is that internment has been tried more than once and has worked more than once. It worked when it was applied, on both sides of the border, during the Second World War. It worked again, also when applied on both sides of the border, in 1962, when it brought to an end an IRA campaign that had begun six years before.

The internment that was tried and failed was a particular form of internment which should never be attempted again. This was mass internment, in the Seventies, of Catholics only, which was inevitably followed by mass Catholic protests, both inside and outside Northern Ireland, leading to the abandonment of internment.

What is needed now is something very different - selective internment, applied even-handedly to the paramilitary godfathers in both communities. The RUC know the people concerned, but can never secure convictions. The only people who get caught are rank-and-file, and even they are seldom convicted.

As it happens, conditions now inside Northern Ireland are ripe for such a measure. There is a change in the pattern of violence there that has attracted little attention from those in the rest of the United Kingdom.

For most of the past 22 years it has been the Catholic terrorists - the IRA - who have been on the offensive, and most of the local victims were Protestants. Last year, however, there were more Catholic victims of Protestant violence than the other way round, and this pattern appears to be persisting into the present year.

The potential effects of the shift are complex. One is to induce the IRA to prefer targets in other parts of the United Kingdom, since these are less likely to provoke reprisals and make the IRA unpopular in its own community. But another result is to make both communities in Northern Ireland, and not just one, ponder the advantages of internment.

I believe that if both sets of godfathers were seen to be put away, the reaction of ordinary people throughout Northern Ireland would be one of overwhelming relief.

Internment on both sides of the border is desirable, but the present government in the republic is unlikely to begin it. Internment in Northern Ireland would lead some of the godfathers to take refuge in the republic, and that could lead quite speedily to the introduction of internment there.

Northern Ireland is the focus of the terrorist infection for the whole of the United Kingdom. It was there that the Warrington bombings were planned and, unless resolute action is taken there, there will be further Warringtons. Wishful reliance on political talks will do nothing to avert that.

(Photograph omitted)