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ULSTER 1997 - There may be troubles ahead...

THE LATTER PART of 1996 was most notable for the amount of wishful thinking about the intentions of the Provisional republican movement. Just a couple of weeks before Christmas two bombs which were discovered near army barracks in Armagh and north Belfast - one a Mark 16 mortar - failed to explode. Some folk who should know better have allowed themselves to believe that the devices were not meant to explode but were just meant to show the British government that the PIRA could mount a real attack any time they wanted. This is of course nonsense. These bombs were just as much intended to kill and maim as the one which killed an officer at the Lisburn barrack some months ago. The murder attempt on the leading DUP man, Nigel Dodds, who was visiting his gravely ill child in hospital, proves that the stark reality has to be faced - the Provos are back at war.

For the present, it is not an all-out campaign as as was waged until August, 1994. We now know that the republican acronym 'TUAS' does not mean as was at first claimed 'totally unarmed struggle' but in fact 'tactical use of armed struggle'. The IRA is using its bombs and guns sparingly whilst Sinn Féin is applying political muscle and manipulating John Hume, Irish-America and sections of the Dublin media to get London and Dublin to do its bidding. At the same time the street agitation against any manifestation of popular Protestant culture and a systematic boycott campaign of protestant-owned businesses in the west of Ulster has continued.

The precise logic of the Provo leadership is hard to pin down. Their street activities through their various 'concerned citizens' front groups are designed to provoke a general protestant insurrection. When this almost happened last July, the Provos and their fellow-travellers in the pan-Irish national chauvinist front were outraged when the British army and the RUC were not deployed in smashing the prods into demoralised submission. It was obvious that they wanted blood to flow. They wanted the Brits and the RUC to do their dirty work for them in line with the oft-repeated Provisional Sinn Féin call for the British government to 'persuade' loyalists into accepting the 'inevitability' of defeat.

Unfortunately for the Provos, this has not worked out according to the Hume/Adams script as John Major has lost his parliamentary majority and now has to rely on the Ulster Unionist Party to keep his government in office.

Sinn Féin must now wait for the next general election to see if there is any change in government. In the meantime the TUAS strategy, which can only raise sectarian tensions, has come to the fore.

The Provo street strategy of promoting sectarian boycotts and seeking to deny access to public manifestations of protestant culture has failed to provoke widespread protestant disorder. Some loyalists, frustrated at having been prevented from parading in the nearby village of Dunloy, have risen to the bait in Ballymena where a number of demonstrators have picketed massgoers at a catholic church every Saturday evening. This has been largely peaceful but there have been some ugly incidents and an unsuccessful attempt to burn the church. If this campaign (which, as it is not aimed at the authors of the orangeophobic campaign in Dunloy, but at all who worship at the Harryville church is morally hard to justify and counter-productive) continues, it is likely that loyalists will come into serious conflict with the police and that can only be of comfort to the IRA.

There can be no doubt that 1997 will not be a peaceful year. It is unlikely that the CLMC's ceasefire will hold for much longer if the Provos continue to plant bombs in Ulster and to target loyalist political representatives for assassination. The future does not look good. Dangerous times lie ahead. Be vigilant.

David Kerr

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