Some Americans of Irish ancestry confuse the so-called soldiers of the Irish Republican Army with Irish patriots and, for that matter, with soldiers. The IRA's cowardly and brutal murder of an unarmed, unwarned British parliamentarian, Ian Gow, the other day demonstrates once again that they are not soldiers and reminds those of us who would like to see the six counties of Northern Ireland united with the Irish Republic that they are not patriots. They are gangsters.

The Irish Republic opposes the IRA. It recognizes that IRA violence retards progress toward unity. The contemporary IRA has no roots in Ireland's struggle eight decades past to rid itself of British rule and no significant support among the citizens of the Irish Republic. In fact, the Irish Republic has made it illegal to be a member of the IRA. There is more support for the IRA in Libya than in Ireland, and does anyone believe that the dictatorship of a Moslem fundamentalist is in sympathy with Catholic freedom fighters?

Col. Moammar Gadhafi considers the querulous factions in Northern Ireland -- both Protestant Unionists and the Catholic Nationalists -- to be infidels. But he supports the IRA, and that is because he supports any Westerners sufficiently violent and nihilistic to bring chaos to Western society. Gadhafi loathes Western civilization, and viewing the futile carnage wrought by the IRA one has to conclude that the IRA shares his loathing. In 20 years of bloodshed the IRA has achieved nothing but misery and destruction. To call its terrorists soldiers is to degrade a useful word. The soldier fights on a battlefield against an enemy who has at least some recognition that he is an enemy, and the ensuing battle is fought according to some rules of combat. IRA terrorists pounce on innocent unarmed people -- the less capable they are of defending themselves the more eager the IRA killer is for combat.

Since February there has been an upsurge in IRA violence, which suggests that the IRA might be worried that the regular diplomacy between Dublin and London might soon succeed in getting Northern Unionists and Northern Nationalists to the negotiating table. That has been the two governments' goal. All that really separates them is that London says Northern Ireland can unite with the Irish Republic when a Northern majority favors unity, and Dublin wants a declaration from London saying the British government favors a united Ireland.

Ah, but here is the rub of uniting Ireland, and it has little to do with the terrorism of the IRA. Fully two-thirds of the inhabitants of Northern Ireland do not want to be united with the South. They consider themselves a different people. Their distinctiveness goes back centuries. Ethnically they are not Irish but Scotch and English. They are not Catholic but Protestant. They have never spoken Gaelic. They have different traditions, heroes, songs and holidays. They do not even look like the Irish. They are Ulstermen who see themselves as Ulstermen first, British second and Irish third. They are dreadful pests, and the IRA only makes them more so.

The British are now suffering for follies committed by their ancestors going back to the days of Edmund Burke, when he warned against British imperial policy in Ireland. He also warned King George III that his ham-fisted policy toward 13 colonies farther to the west would end unhappily, but Burke's counsel was not followed. Were the British to leave Northern Ireland now there would be a bloodbath. The British are doing the honorable thing by staying but at a heavy cost to them. Before he was blown up, Ian Gow was one of many honorable British statesmen who said they would bear the cost, but perhaps someone has calculated that there are limits to the costs London will bear in pursuing the honorable thing.

Where would anyone get that idea? Why, from Britain's recent treatment of Hong Kong. There the British have continually kowtowed to Deng Xiaoping's every whim since the 1984 giveaway of the colony to China. Is it possible that London's shameful treatment of Hong Kong is costing them still more bloodshed at home? Mrs. Thatcher might give that some thought.