SINCE the failure of Peter Brooke's brave but doomed attempt to bring Northern Ireland's political parties together, the province has been engulfed in a spiral of tit-for-tat killings. These have largely escaped our notice in Great Britain, but innocent people in the north live daily with the reality that they may be the next one to be targetted with a brutal and bloody randomness that defies logic and reasonable precautions.
For the clergy of the north, and especially of central Belfast, the past weeks have seen a heart-breaking series of funerals, trying to console grieving relatives, wives and children in a situation that must seem without hope.
The scale of the IRA's violence, paradoxically, is a sign of their weakness at the moment. Last month 10,000 people took to the streets in Cooley, Co Louth, after a particularly brutal and senseless killing, to tell the IRA that the community wanted nothing more to do with them, their methods or their aims. Cooley had hitherto been identified by security experts as an area where the IRA might have felt secure in a certain level of local support.
Indeed the electorate on both sides of the border has been rejecting the IRA for years now. Hence any policy that aims to try to make the IRA, through Sinn Fein, stand or fall by the electoral process as seems in some ways to have been the policy of the British government in recent times , most noticeably by failing to ban Sinn Fein is doomed to failure.
When under pressure, when the IRA feel the public is against them, they resort to the methods that have made them a force for evil for over two decades now fear, propaganda and scapegoating. Those who live in the nationalist ghetto of west Belfast estimate that few of the people there actually support the IRA. Yet they are too frightened to turn away from them. The Jterrorists aim to be a law within the law, a mini-state within the state. Hence their squads "discipline" young people accused of petty crimes by banishment, knee-capping and the like. The people are left in no doubt that if they stand up to the terrorists that it will be their turn next. If they fall in with them, however, they will by and large be left alone. Yes, it is a short-term choice, and yes it is easy to criticise them from a distance, but that is how fear works in manipulating people's responses.
The propaganda of the IRA tells them that unemployment, particularly among vulnerable young people, is the fault of the British government; that bad housing is the fault of the British government ; that in short every economic and social shortcoming of life in the run-down area of west Belfast is the -fault of the British government. The truth of course is very different and the British authorities have made great steps in trying to right the shortcomings of past policy in the area. But the propaganda is clever and it sticks. Gerry Adams is a local boy and knows how to win those around him over with his rhetoric.
And then there is the scapegoating. When there is crime in the area, Shut Fein ask why don't the army or the RUC do anything about it. The answer is simple if the forces of law and order try to intervene they are likely to fall into an ambush. But again the terrorists are clever. They know how to manipulate people.
Security measures are never going to see off the threat of the IRA. Only by breaking the hold of that threefold grip fear, propaganda and scapegoating will the people of the nationalist ghettos be liberated to stand up like the people of Cooley and say no more. It is in laying the groundwork that empowers people to make that step when they are pushed too far that the future lies. It is no easy process, and will not be achieved by short-term panic. But the IRA is vulnerable right now and those of us on the mainland who just throw up our hands in despair at the round of killings that merits scarcely a paragraph in our news at the moment must realise that the killing will not end if we turn our backs.