Subtle Agony of Intimidation Warps Ulster Life

November 23, 1986|TYLER MARSHALL | Times Staff Writer

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — The threat was delivered politely. Harsh words were not needed.

The store owner understood the "request" to close for a few hours in sympathy with a Protestant protest. He also understood the power of the two youths who delivered the message to make his life a nightmare should they have to report to their paramilitary leaders that he had stayed open. The shop's heavy aluminium shutters clattered down.

Such encounters--some deceptively subtle, others powerfully direct--are a part of one of the most pervasive, refined campaigns of intimidation anywhere. More than the violence itself, this intimidation is the currency of Northern Ireland's agony. It warps everyday life and instills a gnawing fear in the subconscious of those who live here.

The bombs, the bullets and the riots are infrequent moments of terror, concentrated in urban working-class areas or along the border with the Irish Republic. But the fear stemming from the prospect of intimidation seeps into every corner of the province and every facet of life. No one escapes it.

In a supposedly enlightened, religiously mixed, middle-class neighborhood near Queens University in Belfast, a housewife decided that it would be unwise to place a harp near her window. The seemingly innocuous musical instrument is also a symbol of the mainly Roman Catholic Irish Republic. Here it could be misconstrued as a political statement.

Similarly, she never lets tradesmen in the house for fear that they might see a book or object and draw the wrong conclusions.

In a working-class area south of Belfast, where closely packed living conditions make political loyalties impossible to hide, Protestant paramilitary groups began working on Catholic families who resisted their "suggestions" to get out of the neighborhood by deploying bands of bullies, known here as "hardies," to jeer, insult or rough up their children to and from school.

"Twenty-three Catholic families have been harassed out of the area in the past year," said Eddie McGrady, a local politician for the Social Democratic Labor Party, which takes its support mainly from moderate Catholics.

The power of intimidation in Northern Ireland lies in the knowledge that both Catholic and Protestant-based paramilitary groups have proven their ability to kill, maim or torture.

So far this year, the number of assassinations directly linked by police to intimidation stands at 18.

"Intimidation is the most difficult and destabilizing element of Northern Ireland life," said Tom King, the British Cabinet minister responsible for the province. "It is one of the things that most inhibits progress."

Sometimes the intimidation does make news, such as last spring's firebombing campaign against the homes of police officers by Protestant paramilitary groups angry that the police had stopped their demonstrations.

But more often it comes in more subtle ways such as telephone calls, letters or, in a more recent macabre twist, sympathy cards.

"There was a time when they'd send a bullet in an envelope, but I guess they've stopped that because they run a bit short of ammunition," noted Dan Keenan, spokesman for the Social Democratic Labor Party.

For those in public life, death threats are accepted as coming with the job.

"I get my phone calls and my letters, but it's part of an overall risk factor for being politically active," said politician McGrady.

But for private individuals, such threats bring with them a special brand of terror.

A few days after ordering the removal of Protestant political posters from the shop floor of the Short Brothers airplane plant here, a factory supervisor, also Protestant, suddenly found himself staring at his own death notice in Belfast's biggest newspaper.

At the same plant, license plate numbers of cars belonging to Protestant workers who defied a call by Protestant political leaders for a one-day strike last March 3 began appearing on shop floor bulletin boards in a "lucky numbers" lottery space. Many of these vehicles were subsequently vandalized.

Short Brothers management has tried to crack down on intimidation, but executives admit that there is little that they can do.

"We've got 2 million square feet of factory floor space, and if someone wants to sneak something onto a bulletin board, it isn't difficult," noted one executive.

But such tactics are benign compared to the outlawed Irish Republican Army's year-old campaign of intimidation against those involved in a $225-million project to renovate police stations in the province.

The IRA announced that anyone connected with the project, whether an executive or construction worker, would be a legitimate assassination target. To make their point, IRA gunmen have killed four employers and at least 10 workers.

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