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Ulster police gave IRA a propaganda coup

The outlawed Irish Republican Army and its fund-raisers in the United States have notched up a comprehensive propaganda success, thanks to the mishandling by security forces of a Republican rally in the Ulster capital, Belfast.

The fiasco began when the publicity director of the Irish Northern Aid Committee (Noraid), the United States-based lobby of the Republican movement, decided to attend a rally of the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, in West Belfast.

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In London the Home Office banned Martin Galvin's planned visit to Ulster, but he went ahead with the trip.

When he emerged from a nearby house to address the rally Sunday, units of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) moved in to arrest him. But violence arose and suddenly, in full view of television cameras, the security forces began firing plastic bullets in an attempt to restore order.

One member of the crowd was killed by a plastic bullet. In the confusion Galvin managed to escape, wearing, reports stated, a police uniform.

The incident received massive coverage on both sides of the Atlantic and sparked off political controversy in Belfast and London.

Four key points emerged from the argument:

* Ulster police overreacted in the midst of a large and emotional crowd, then let their quarry get away.

* The Home Office in London may have been unwise to place a ban on Galvin's visit, without first consulting with the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

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* Galvin was able to walk away, having attracted huge publicity of the very type that helps Noraid to raise funds in the US.

* Patient attempts to produce a better atmosphere in relations between the RUC and Northern Ireland's Roman Catholics were seriously undermined.

Republican mistrust of the Ulster police has been one of the chief obstacles to a policy of reconciliation in the province.

RUC spokesmen denied police had used plastic bullets indiscriminately, but television coverage showed an apparent panic reaction by constables near the dais where Galvin attempted to address the crowd.

In earlier negotiations between the two religious communities, the role of Ulster's police force has consistently been a hot topic, with Catholics claiming a Protestant bias in security activities.

The propaganda impact of the incident was exploited by Gerry Adams, a Sinn Fein leader and Westminster parliamentarian. Mr. Adams at once organized a protest march and accused Ulster police of having used unnecessary violence.

The RUC rejected calls for an independent inquiry into its handling of the incident. A spokesman admitted that 31 plastic bullets had been fired.

Twenty civilians were taken to hospital. One of them was dead on arrival.

Noraid is believed to raise about $300,000 a year for use in Northern Ireland. Its organizers say the money goes into a fund to help the families of jailed Republican gunmen, but the Ulster authorities claim it is spent mainly on arms and explosives.

Some of the harshest comment on the incident came from the British Liberal Party leader, David Steel, who spoke of a ''police riot'' at the Sinn Fein rally.

As the row escalated, James Prior, Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, interrupted his vacation and took full responsibility for Galvin's visit. This was interpreted as an attempt to end the controversy.

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