"The terrorist rarely imposes a significant threat in himself, either politically or on the military level," according to the new British Army Commander for Northern Ireland.
"The only really significant threat he poses is in what he can provoke in others," Lt. Gen. Richard Lawson concluded recently, adding a pledge that his troops will not be lured into overreacting to terrorist provocation.
In both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic to the south, government officials, police officers, politicians, church spokesmen, and ordinary citizens seem to feel that General Lawson's calm approach is gaining ground against the terrorists.
Key to this success may be the latest shift in the role of the British Army, which was rushed into this British province on Aug. 14, 1969, and still soldiers on today -- to try to clear out what is said to be a hard core of some 300 members of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA).
North and south, the general opinion appears to be that despite the Army's 13 ,000-strong presence, experience, and determination, it has learned to play a decreasing role in decisionmaking.
Instead, policy is seen as firmly in the hands of Britain's Northern Ireland Office. This shifting collection of top British and Northern Ireland civil servants is headed by Secretary of State Humphrey Atkins, whose seat in the British Cabinet gives him direct access to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Interviews north and south brought out three main points of agreement:
* The Army's traditionally tough anti-terrorist attitude is understandable. It is part of Army training.
* Britain's "primacy of law and order" policy launched in July 1976 is working because it avoids the drastic anti-terrorist measures that in the past affected the entire Roman Catholic community.
* Northern Ireland's once-discredited Royal Ulster Constabulary is carrying out normal police duties in most areas and is generally accepted as a reformed and responsible force.
Another promising sign is the shift to a new type of wall map of Northern Ireland. Offices north and south still display the sadly colorful "tribal" map that over the years has charted increasing segregation of the religious groups. Green Catholic areas and orange Protestant areas have grown, while the yellow mixed areas have shrunk.
Less colorful but more hopeful is the black-and-white map that shows only the relatively small "black" trouble areas of west Belfast, central Londonderry, and south Armagh, and not religious concentrations. But these black areas together contain only 105,000 people out of an Ulster population of 1.5 million.
Today police patrols regularly enter even the black areas. They enter with military protection, but generally in response to requests from within the Catholic areas to deal with incidents such as robberies. Until recently crime often went unreported because of Catholic suspicion of the police.
The careful, quiet expansion of the police role is one part of an overall "normalization" policy.
According to one top British official, normalization extends from very basic police and community-relations work to "not locking people up without very good reasons, reasons their neighbors will understand. . . . And not imposing any form of government from outside."
Normalization also has included considerable effort to explain the new policies -- faults and all -- to those willing to listen.
At the present time, many ordinary Catholics north and south seem to be listening -- and responding.
In a verbal attack against the illegal IRA, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnois, Dr. Cahal Daly, responded by stating that "The IRA campaign stands totally condemned by the standards of justice."
The Bishop went on to say that:
"IRA publicity talks of the British presence, the 'British occupation' of the North of Ireland, as if this were something extraneous to the Northern Ireland situation; something which could be ended unilaterally by Britain's merely withdrawing her Army and her governmental institutions. But this is to ignore the fact that there are in Northern Ireland roughly 1 million people, who have been in this island for more than 300 years, and who form a rightful and permanent part of Irish reality; but who owe allegiance to Britain, who profess a British identity, claim British citizenship, and demand the presence and protection of the British Army. These rightful inhabitants of this island of Ireland are a 'British presence' in Ireland. . . .
"No future for Ireland is conceivable or could be just, which does not take account of their feelings, which does not respect their rights, which does not offer hope of securing their consent. No talk of 'British withdrawal,' from whatever source it comes, is either politically meaningful or morally admissible , which does not take cognizance of the rightful presence in Ireland of this million people."