BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- This year has begun as one of the bloodiest in the last decade in Northern Ireland, and officials fear the situation will only worsen in coming months as the 20th anniversary of the deployment of British troops here approaches.
So far, the 1989 death toll stands at 19 from sectarian violence between Protestants, who favor continued union with Britain, and Roman Catholics, who want the British out and reunification with the independent Republic of Ireland. The latest victims were two British soldiers, one Catholic civilian and three Protestant civilians killed last week in attacks for which the Irish Republican Army claimed responsibility.
Already the largely Catholic, outlawed Irish Republican Army, which is believed to possess an extraordinary stockpile of weapons and explosives, has made it clear that it intends to step up its attacks both here and on the British mainland before the deployment anniversary in August. At the same time, illegal Protestant paramilitary groups have launched what has been called "one of the most concerted loyalist campaigns for years."
Typically, most of the victims of "the Troubles," as the violence is known here, have been noncombatants. The IRA acknowledged after last week's shootings in Coagh that although it had intended to kill one man as an alleged Protestant paramilitary member, two pensioners were slain "in the general confusion." Seven civilians also have been killed by Protestant groups.
"Although 1988 was, by any standards, a bad year for violence in Northern Ireland, security sources are almost unanimous in privately predicting that the prospects for 1989 are, if anything, even worse," David McKittrick, award-winning Northern Ireland correspondent for the Independent, wrote recently.
The gloom prevails despite some rare, albeit tentative, political contacts between the two sides. The biggest concern is renewal of the "horrible tit-for-tat cycle" of death that peaked here in the mid-1970s, a spokesman for the Royal Ulster Constabulary said.
Of the 2,730 people killed here since British troops were sent into action Aug. 15, 1969, 1,651 of them died in the particularly violent 1971-1976 period. A total of 1,235 of those were civilians.
Amid the latest spate of killings, authorities have significantly heightened their security efforts. But a number of factors are working against them, they say.
For one thing, Protestant paramilitary groups are better armed than previously believed, according to the spokesman for the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Two recent seizures of arms by the authorities included such heavy weapons as a rocket launcher and parts of a missile, and other raids reportedly have uncovered dozens of homemade machine guns.
Among this year's victims of loyalist assassination squads was Patrick Finucane, a prominent attorney who frequently defended alleged IRA terrorists. Another victim, however, was a member of the Free Presbyterian Church of the Rev. Ian Paisley, a unionist leader. The Presbyterian was gunned down in an apparent case of mistaken identity.
Sinn Fein Spokesman
But the bigger threat remains the IRA, which "would obviously want to drive home the message of the failure of Britain's policy" on the occasion of the 20th anniversary, said Danny Morrison, spokesman for Sinn Fein, the legal party usually described as the IRA's political arm.
"They probably want to inflict heavy casualties on the British," he added. "Whether they can is another question."
The IRA's message, McKittrick said, is that "they haven't been beaten in 20 years, and they won't be. So Britain might just as well pull out."
Meanwhile, officials continue to worry about the IRA's ability to carry on a sustained campaign of violence both here and in England itself.
The captain of a freighter captured by the French last year with 150 tons of munitions aboard allegedly admitted to having earlier delivered an equal amount of weaponry to the IRA from Libya's Col. Moammar Kadafi. According to the constabulary spokesman, there is "no doubt" that the "very, very sizable" IRA munitions stockpile includes SAM-7 missiles and flame throwers.
'No Evidence' of SAMs
Morrison confirmed that a flame thrower was seized recently in an IRA cache in western Belfast although, he said, "there's no evidence that the IRA possesses SAMs."
Authorities fear that if it does have surface-to-air missiles, the IRA will use them to try to shoot down an aircraft carrying its acknowledged top target, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, or even a member of the royal family.
The IRA is also believed to have as much as five tons of a Czechoslovak-made high explosive called Semtex. Because 20 pounds of Semtex was sufficient to reduce a brick army barracks in London to rubble in an explosion last August, such a huge stockpile clearly could support an extraordinarily widespread bombing campaign.
Police have made at least three recent Semtex finds in England, including one last week near where Thatcher and her senior ministers are scheduled to attend a conference of the Conservative Party on Friday and Saturday.
'Very Dangerous' Force
The British government is dealing with "a skilled . . . (and) very dangerous" terrorist force preparing a major bombing campaign on the British mainland, Home Secretary Douglas Hurd charged after the latest explosives discovery.
Here in Belfast, meanwhile, the conflict has become so institutionalized that it almost blends into the deceptively peaceful and surprisingly prosperous-looking surroundings.
It is at its rawest in working-class sections of west Belfast, where a concrete barrier known cynically as the "peace wall" separates Catholics who live in the Falls Road area from Protestants of the Shankill section. Many buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes, and others show the scars of bombs and booby-traps.
Graffiti in a slum on the Catholic side of the barrier make a sick joke of the killing of a policeman hit by a mortar shell, while in Shankill they extol Protestant assassin Michael Stone, who shot three Catholics at a funeral.
Near the top of Springfield Street--known locally as Beirut Avenue--a visitor last week saw a hooded assailant stop a truck driver and threaten him with a .45 caliber pistol at 3 p.m. on a sunny afternoon. The truck driver escaped, but a radio newscast less than an hour later reported that a bread van had been hijacked at the same spot, which was only about 200 yards from a major army post.
Elsewhere, the conflict is more genteel: Multicolored murals decorate walls on both sides of the sectarian divide. The Catholic ones, often captioned in Gaelic, favor masked IRA fighters with grenade launchers and assault rifles. But although some of the Protestant versions depict their own paramilitary forces, they are generally heavier on symbolism and feature a red hand or the figure of "King Billy"--the Protestant William of Orange, who defeated James II, a Catholic, at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and succeeded him as king of England.
Segregation between the two communities is near total in the city, with distinct Catholic and Protestant schools, neighborhoods and even sports. Residents say they can usually tell a man's allegiances by his name--Eamonn O'Neill would certainly be a Catholic, while David Neil would be Protestant.
Many saw it as symbolic when the city was forced late last month to tear down 19 nearly new homes that had fallen victim to the struggle. Built as part of a slum-clearance project in the early 1980s and intended as an experiment in integrated living, the houses were so severely damaged in sectarian riots that nobody wanted to live in them. They are to be replaced with a small park.
Some Say There's Hope
Still, some profess to see hope in the current gloom. "When I was a child, there was bigotry full stop," said David Bleakley, general secretary of the Irish Council of Churches, an ecumenical group. "Now there is bigotry 'plus,' " he added, naming a list of projects and groups trying to reach across the sectarian divide.
Even the politicians have tried talking to each other.
"Only in Northern Ireland would it come as a shock to learn politicians have been talking," said Peter Robinson, No. 2 man in the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party and a participant in what were intended as secret contacts last fall in Duisberg, West Germany.
The Duisberg talks represented a breakthrough by bringing together officials of the province's two unionist parties and the nationalist but moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party. The SDLP has the support of an estimated two-thirds of the Catholic vote, with the balance going to the more radical Sinn Fein.
Although little occurred at the Duisberg meeting beyond the defense of positions on the conflict, the very fact that it happened suggested a new-found readiness by unionists to compromise. This stands in sharp contrast to the hard-line loyalist position on Northern Ireland, which has been characterized by one government source as "a Protestant state for Protestant people."
'Wrecked by the Press'
The talks ended after news of them became public, but Robinson, who is considered a Protestant pragmatist, stressed in an interview that "Duisberg didn't fail. The contacts between the political parties didn't fail. They were wrecked by the press." He charged that journalists had incorrectly depicted the meeting as verging on breakthrough.
With local and European Community elections coming up this spring, Robinson and other Northern Ireland politicians said it is unlikely that contacts will be resumed until summer, if at all.
Nonetheless, "there are signs that real, cross-party politics is starting to break out here," an official of Britain's Northern Ireland office said.
Optimists also see cause for hope in a visit by unionist and nationalist politicians to London last month to press jointly for government aid to two major Belfast employers, the Harland & Wolff shipyard and Short Brothers, an aircraft manufacturer.
No lasting settlement can occur here unless Northern Ireland's mainstream nationalists and unionists can agree on a constitutional settlement, it is believed. Britain can try to encourage such a process but cannot dictate a settlement.
Pressure on Sinn Fein
If the mainstream parties can agree to real political negotiations, it would put enormous pressure on Sinn Fein to join the process, some believe. Others say the prospect of talks would only persuade the IRA and the loyalist paramilitary groups to step up their "armed struggle."
"We agree with the efficacy of armed struggle, that it can bring about political benefits, and that ultimately it will be the armed struggle that saps the will and ends the British occupation of Northern Ireland," said Sinn Fein's Morrison.
There is, according to an independent analyst here who spoke on condition of anonymity, "a sense of ill-fated destiny that falls over this place." Even the joint effort to save Harland & Wolff has its negative symbolism, this source noted.
Harland & Wolff built the ill-fated luxury liner Titanic.