In the past two years the IRA has been systematically destroying the centres of one Protestant town after another, wrecking businesses and throwing people out of jobs. And the pace of this campaign of destruction has rapidly increased this year. Last year, when this particular campaign started, there were two such attacks: Lurgan was hit in March, Coleraine in November. But with this year little more than half-way through, there have already been four of these massive bombings: Bangor (March), Portadown (May), Magherafelt (May) and Newtownards this week.
In the light of those facts, consider the comment of Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, after Newtownards: 'The IRA do not, as yet, realise they are bound to fail - though upon many of them that truth is dawning. They will come to learn this.' 'As yet' is good. The IRA started its offensive in 1971 and have kept it up ever since. This year, with Sir Patrick in charge, they have had those four spectacular successes.
On many occasions over the past two decades, British officials have announced the impending collapse of the IRA, but generally during a lull or slackening in the campaign. For Sir Patrick to make such a diagnosis in the ruins of Newtownards is to demonstrate that official complacency is actually rising while Northern Ireland burns.
On the same day that Sir Patrick made his 'bound to fail' speech, John Taylor, Unionist MP for Strangford, the constituency of which Newtownards is part, offered a strikingly different diagnosis. He said: 'I have to say something I thought I would never say: The IRA is certainly winning in Northern Ireland.'
'Certainly winning' is probably an exaggeration, but it is a lot nearer the truth than 'bound to fail'. The RUC registered an important success this week, a few hours after the bombing of Newtownards, when they managed to seize two massive devices - one weighing 2,000lb and the other 800lb - after chasing a terrorist gang for three miles through South Armagh countryside. One of those bombs could have done for Banbridge, the other for Tandragee. This was a successful and meritorious exercise in damage limitation, but that is all it was. As long as the godfathers are still at large, they can still keep up the most durable terror campaign in the world.
The fact is that the IRA has a long-term strategy, which looks nearer to success now than it did 20 years ago, or 10. Their objectives, in the present phase, may be defined as follows: to hit the Protestants so hard as to provoke them into hitting back against the Catholic community, thus obliging the security forces to step in, and come under fire from both sides: to keep this up until the British grow tired of it and go home. This week, the first phase of this programme was in full swing, and the prospects for the rest looked increasingly bright.
The most promising prospect, for the realisation of the final stage of the programme, is that the Unionist population shall be drawn into combat with British troops, in which British soldiers get killed. In that case British withdrawal - or rather the expulsion of Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom - would begin to move up the political agenda.
The IRA knows that there are influential British officials who would like to see Britain disengage from Northern Ireland. Certain indiscretions - Peter Brooke's 'Cyprus' analogy, Sir Patrick Mayhew's Die Zeit interview - suggest that both the present Secretary of State and his predecessor may be of this number.
The IRA knows that if Unionists can be drawn into killing British soldiers, the case for withdrawal would be immensely strengthened.
One can imagine the language that would prepare the way for withdrawal: 'We have paid a high price in blood and treasure to preserve the present United Kingdom. We would have been prepared to go on doing so had those who call themselves Unionists in Northern Ireland done their share along with us in preserving the Union. Instead of that, many of them have revolted against the Union by murdering British soldiers sent there to preserve it.
'The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is about to be dissolved. But it is not the people of Great Britain who are responsible for its dissolution. It is the so-called Unionists of Northern Ireland.'
The IRA feels close to the breakthrough it is looking for. And its tactics, in what it thinks of as the final phase, are obvious. First, keep the pressure up on the Protestants, so that they are drawn to attack the police, as last weekend. Then the IRA attacks the police, so that they, under fire from both sides, call in the Army. When the Army then comes under fire from both sides, the stage for withdrawal is set.
The drift in that direction could still be checked. Selective internment of both sets of godfathers would be a good first step, and would be welcomed by large numbers in both communities. But I don't think that will happen. I don't think the will is there. John Major sounded firm about the Union this week when he scolded the Labour Party over its 'Joint Administration' nonsense. But I fear that he was really being firm about the Labour Party and not the Union. And I suspect that there are people in the Northern Ireland Office and also in the Foreign Office who are quite happy about the way Northern Ireland is being allowed to drift. A good excuse for disengagement would suit these people fine.
Near the end of a book of mine called States of Ireland, published 21 years ago, I wrote of a Benign Model and a Malign Model for the future of Northern Ireland. The Benign Model need not detain us at this date. At the core of the Malign Model was the following:
'The British Army comes under armed attack from both communities. With increasing casualties and no solution in sight, a British government announces its agreement to the unity of Ireland.'
I'm afraid we may be nearly there. The rest of the Malign Model is on Bosnian lines.