New IRA leader may have directed earlier atrocities


IF LAST night's bomb was set by the Provisional IRA, the fears of the security forces that a new IRA leadership has reverted to the use of violence as the principal way to achieve its aims will have been underlined.

The initial interpretation of last night's attack in the heart of London's theatre district was that it was the IRA's work. No other terrorist groups have been recently involved in serious attacks in Britain in recent years.

There have been substantial movements towards settlements in the Middle East and former Yugoslavia and no terrorist group associated with these conflicts is known to have a reason for mounting attacks against Britain.

Gardai believe the new IRA chief of staff may be a figure who has been associated with some of the most savage aspects of the IRA campaign in Northern Ireland. The man, who is also a member of Sinn Fein, is blamed for directing previous IRA atrocities.

In the late 1980s he was regarded as the architect of the "human bomb" campaign in which booby trapped bombs were placed in vans which were then driven to British army posts by civilians who were told their families would be killed if they did not comply. The first of these attacks resulted in the deaths of five soldiers and the civilian lorry driver in an attack on the Buncrana Road checkpoint outside Derry in late 1988.

The same republican figure is attributed with having directed the IRA "body count" stratagem in the run up to an election in the North in the late 1980s. By this, he meant the IRA should kill as many people as possible to destabilise the North before that election.

Garda sources at the weekend indicated they had learned from intelligence reports that this man had assumed control of the IRA. They regard him as a member of the IRA leadership since the early 1970s but never previously as its leader (known in republican circles as the chief of staff). In fact, there had been speculation recently from security sources in the North that the man had dropped out of the IRA leadership.

The information reaching gardai in the past few days appears to suggest the whole IRA leadership has been reformed and that the man, formerly known as the IRA's Northern commander, has assumed overall control.

It was suspected the man may have decided to reverse the "unarmed strategy" which was devised and developed by the Gerry Adams led Sinn Fein faction and which brought about the 1994 ceasefire. Gardai are still uncertain of the make up of the rest of the new IRA leadership which is believed to have been put in place in recent months.

During the ceasefire, the army council was dormant and replaced by a larger, caretaker group known as the IRA "army executive". The executive is believed to have been convened some time late last year and charged with the appointment of a new army council, which directs the IRA during periods of active conflict.

The worst fears of security forces North and South is that a new IRA leadership will be prepared to ignore political pressure to stop its campaign. It is also feared that the organisation has spent the period of the ceasefire re arming and placing new members in Britain and Northern Ireland in preparation for a renewed campaign.

One of the IRA figures who is close to the suspected new IRA leader had been understood to have kept a close watch on the talks between Sinn Fein and British government representatives in the North up to last autumn. His role was pivotal in the decision by the IRA to resume its campaign.

There had been some hopes that the IRA bomb at Docklands might have been a "one off" attack to pressurise on the British government into political movement over Northern Ireland. The bomb left in a telephone kiosk in the West End last Thursday and admitted by the IRA appears to contradict this.

Last night's bomb, also believed to be the work of the IRA, would rule out any prospect of the IRA holding back to allow political movement.

The British security services expected the IRA would mount attacks in London in the event of a break in its ceasefire. They appear to have been able to read IRA intentions, although not closely enough to indicate when the attacks would occur.