Two weeks ago, a 50-pound, remote-controlled bomb shattered the sunny afternoon near Mullaghmore off the west coast of Ireland and killed Lord Mountbatten. The tragedy made one thing clear: A proud and civilized nation is being brutally terrorized by a few hundred fanatics with virtually no popular support. What the IRA gangsters hope to accomplish by their allout campaign of bloodshed in recent months is not clear. Presumably, they hope to provoke the British government into meeting force with more force, thus gaining world sympathy for the IRA's holy cause of union between Ulster and Eire.

Earlier this year, our associate Jack Mitchell traveled to Belfast to report on Northern Ireland's sectarian strife and to measure the gap that separates the hostile Protestant and Catholic communities. What he found was a province that was, though still sharply divided by religious and economic differences, thoroughly sick of violence as a solution to its problems.

Mitchell's visit came in a period of relative calm and hope for compromise. But while leaders and ordinary citizens on both sides were expressing guarded optimism, the IRA was busily working to rebuild its forces.

What isn't generally known is that the IRA, in its desperation to become a force to be reckoned with, has turned for help to a more successful gang of international terrorists -- the Palestine Liberation Organization. Supplied with Soviet-made weapons, the PLO has provided guns and sabotage devices to its IRA friends. The PLO is also giving special training to IRA members in terrorist schools in the Middle East, intelligence sources have confirmed.

Indeed, knowledgeable sources speculate that the IRA's apparently new communist-style, cell-like organizational structure is a direct result of its close ties with far-left terrorist groups like the PLO. The Irish fanatics' relationship with the Palestinian terrorists goes back at least seven years.

As recently as last April, Libya's mercurial revoluntionary strongman, Muammar Qaddafi, stated, "We regard Northern Ireland as under British colonization . . .. We do not consider the Irish fight for freedom to be terrorism." Quaddafi's views cannot be dismissed lightly. He has put his nation's vast oil riches at the disposal of left-wing terrorist groups all over the world.

All of Europe seemingly has become a weapons cache for IRA operatives. In February, two IRA-linked suspects were caught trying to smuggle hand grenades and explosives from the Middle East through Greece for eventual use in Northern Ireland. American M60 machine guns stolen from U.S. weapons depots have turned up in the IRA supply line to London and Dublin.

This year's wave of IRA violence in Europe seems to be the culmination of several years' planning by the outlaw army's chieftains, who have been assiduously cultivating friends among international terrorist groups. In the past the IRA has had no qualms about affirming "solidarity" with far-left West German terrorist organizations, including the Baader-Meinhof Gang.

In January, intelligence sources received reports that IRA activists were assisting Basque separatists in Spain, trading explosives for M16 and Belgium-made rifles, after secret meetings between the two groups in Belgium.

Political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have repeatedly tried to bring Northern Ireland's feuding factions to the bargaining tables, in hopes of creating a workable compromise. But the killings go on -- not just of illustrious victims like Lord Mountbatten, but innocent women and children throughout Ulster. History has repeatedly shown that nothing is more cruelly unjust than the misguided zeal of fanatics. The IRA, unfortunately, is living proof.