IRA Bomb Shatters the Peace

The modernistic landscape that has sprouted over London's once-derelict Docklands since the 1980s is the kind of target the Irish Republican Army loved to hit. Its centrepiece is Canary Wharf, the sometimes-maligned 52-storey office tower that is the tallest building in Britain.

IRA Bomb Shatters the Peace

The modernistic landscape that has sprouted over London's once-derelict Docklands since the 1980s is the kind of target the Irish Republican Army loved to hit. Its centrepiece is Canary Wharf, the sometimes-maligned 52-storey office tower that is the tallest building in Britain. Its developer, Canada's Reichmann family, envisioned it becoming the centre of Europe's financial industry in the 21st century. The Reichmanns and Canary Wharf both endured troubles in recent years, but both are back: after a bout with receivership, the Docklands has resumed luring blue-chip financial firms away from the venerable City of London and wooing the newspaper chains that have pulled up stakes from Fleet Street. The symbolic combination of financial and media clout makes Canary Wharf a terrorist's dream - and a faulty detonator was all that short-circuited a previous IRA attempt to blow it up in 1992. What the Docklands lacks in cachet compared with, say, Buckingham Palace, it makes up for in its security protection, which is much easier to beat.

Or so the IRA demonstrated at the close of the workday on Feb. 9, when it put a shuddering end to its 17-month ceasefire experiment by detonating an explosives-laden truck just a quarter-mile from Canary Wharf. The bomb went off outside a sister docklands complex called the South Quay Plaza, where three office towers, a light-railway station and a hotel converge. It came just one hour after an IRA statement released to Irish television announced, "with great reluctance," an end to the ceasefire. Police had some advance warning, but not enough time to evacuate workers from the neighborhood or the thousands more who live in the modest apartment blocks close by. Shortly after 7 p.m., with the local London Arena jammed with schoolchildren watching a basketball game and with workers pouring out of offices for the weekend, the massive explosion rocked the area.

Buildings sagged from the concussion. Windows in the nearby low-income public housing estates imploded and gas mains were ruptured, triggering a smaller second blast. Customers dove to the floor in the Trade Winds wine bar as radiators popped off the wall and ceiling tiles fell. The bang rolled out over the dark waters of the Thames towards the City of London, and was heard up to four miles away. Police found the bodies of two men in the wreckage the next day, as the IRA formally claimed responsibility for the blast. More than 100 people suffered cuts from the explosion. That the casualties were not higher was a matter of luck, not IRA planning, said London assistant police commissioner Anderson Dunn. At daybreak, the Docklands resembled a scene out of Sarajevo, curtains billowing out the windows of the damaged buildings, the gutted highrise floors spewing steel.

The return of the violence took most people by surprise - including, apparently, leaders of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing. Its leader, Gerry Adams, had warned of the IRA's impatience and its itch for renewed violence at every slowdown in the peace process. And he telephoned the White House in Washington just hours before the explosion to warn the Clinton administration that he was hearing "disturbing news." But other Sinn Fein politicians continued talking about the peaceful road to a settlement, leading to speculation that the bombing marked a rupture between IRA hardliners and their political leaders. Just a week earlier, Northern Ireland's police chief, Sir Hugh Annesley, told Irish reporters that the IRA was keeping "sleeper" terrorists in Britain to maintain its capability to strike. But Annesley declared there was no sign of a break in the peace.

If there was surprise at the ceasefire's breakdown, the politicians still managed to return to their habitual posturing. Calling the bombing "an appalling outrage," British Prime Minister John Major challenged the squirming Sinn Fein leadership to condemn the attack. Major's Northern Ireland minister, Sir Patrick Mayhew, who has been an uncompromising advocate of getting the paramilitary groups to surrender their weapons before Britain enters into peace talks, said: "It has vindicated those who believed that there was a threat implicit in holding on to those arms. That threat was made manifest last night." To brimstone unionist Rev. Ian Paisley, the bomb simply reconfirmed his stand never to deal with Sinn Fein. And Adams resorted to his predictable response of expressing "sadness" for the victims, while quickly turning the blame on the British government. "Let us not take the focus off the man who is sitting in Downing Street and who has frittered away the peace process for short-term political gain," he said on Irish TV.

Was it only last December that euphoric crowds turned out in the damp, cold Irish air to hail U.S. President Bill Clinton's head-knocking role in pushing the peace process forward? At the time, Clinton's visit to Dublin and Belfast had broken the latest logjam in a process bedeviled by too many blockages to count. After the fanfare announcing the joint Anglo-Irish Downing Street Declaration in December, 1993, which promised all-party talks, constant squabbling had prevented the factions from all getting together. The thorniest obstacle was London's insistence that the IRA start decommissioning its weapons before formal discussions could begin. That demand was anathema to many Irish republicans, who saw their cache of arms as the ultimate guarantor of their liberty. Clinton's Irish initiative tried to find a way around that impasse by appointing a commission to explore alternatives and offer all parties an honorable way out. In January, the body, chaired by former U.S. senator George Mitchell, recommended proceeding with both the all-party peace talks and discussions on decommissioning at the same time.

But Major scuppered that approach with a surprise announcement that he favored elections in Northern Ireland instead. The vote, he said, would determine who should sit around the negotiating table and in what numbers. Major's call met a key condition of the Ulster Unionist party, his parliamentary allies led by the vigorous David Trimble. The Unionists sustain Major's thin majority at Westminster. But Irish republicans and the Irish government saw the move as one more delaying tactic, and it clearly frightened Sinn Fein, which has an electoral base of less than five per cent of the popular vote in the province. It may have also badly damaged Adams's credibility with IRA hardliners. The bearded leader, who by accepted accounts once commanded the Belfast brigade of the IRA, has always been under pressure to show gains for his gamble to end the armed struggle. So far, his most significant triumph has been the growth of his own celebrity: feted as a hero by such fawning Hollywood actors as Martin Sheen, and welcomed with handshakes at the Clinton White House as a legitimate political broker.

Producing a real peace deal out of the ceasefire was never going to be easy. Throughout the months when the guns were silent, IRA activists continued to mete out punishment beatings to those who ran afoul of their rules in the working-class neighborhoods of Belfast and Londonderry. Drug dealers were assassinated by a group with a new name but an IRA signature method. Protestants have continued to try to "cleanse" their areas of "the other" - meaning Catholic families in their midst.

But the tragedy so far is that the peace process has floundered on the "process" part, all sides splitting semantic hairs over whether they have received enough concessions to agree to "substantive negotiations" or just a "dialogue." Britain's insistence that it will not talk to armed groups, laudable as a principle, has blocked practical progress. All sides invoke the analogy of historic agreements in South Africa and the Middle East as a precedent for peace in Northern Ireland. But that ignores the way those once-implacable enemies sacrificed the odd principle in order to get down to business. The Irish drama has yet to produce a Nelson Mandela or a Yitzhak Rabin. While the people of Northern Ireland made clear their joy at leading violence-free lives, they have often seen their leaders indulge in the politics of invective rather than statesmanship.

Now, even the much-coveted "momentum" of the peace process has been lost. "I know progress was slow, but it was being made," said Irish Prime Minister John Bruton in Dublin, where he urged the IRA to "call this campaign off." But Bruton also halted a planned early release of IRA prisoners. Within hours of the bombing, armored vehicles were back patrolling Belfast streets, and British forces, whose numbers in Northern Ireland had been reduced in the last year, redonned flak jackets. In London, where some of the IRA's most deadly strikes have occurred, passengers who had grown used to travelling on the London Underground without suffering constant security alerts found stations again closed at random by bomb threats. "Saner heads must prevail," said retired general John de Chastelain, the former Canadian defence chief of staff who was one of the three authors of the Mitchell report. "You don't negotiate with explosions. You negotiate with talk."

Most of the talk after the bombing, however, focused on recrimination and buck-passing. Is Sinn Fein caught out, asked commentators as Major pressed Adams to condemn the bombers? Will Irish events help or hurt Major's re-election chances? Have the Ulster Unionists been proven right not to talk? Seemingly forgotten in the jockeying and one-upmanship were the people of the British Isles, who have made it clear that they want to be able to enjoy a beer after work without the fear of being blown out of their seat or showered with glass. They were the people who cheered when Clinton stood in the Belfast night and told the paramilitary groups: "Your day is over." British and Irish politicians have been unable to deliver. In the vacuum, those who prefer the pornography of explosions and death stepped in. Sadly, their victims will be simple citizens, like the ones in the Docklands who spent a Friday night getting stitched for their wounds, or hammering boards into their window frames to keep out the winter chill.

Maclean's February 19, 1996