Bomb Blast Rocks London After IRA Ends Cease-Fire
By Fred Barbash
The bombing in an underground parking garage, which injured more than 100 people, threatened to permanently derail the stalled Northern Ireland peace process. British authorities immediately announced the reimposition of strict security measures that had been relaxed during the past year and a half. Police in flak jackets and security checkpoints bristling with automatic weapons returned to the streets of Belfast, the Northern Ireland capital.
Few expressed any doubt tonight that the bomb was the work of the IRA, although no claim of responsibility was issued. The blast, in the Docklands development of east London, was preceded by a coded warning similar to those issued in the past by the IRA before bombings.
Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the legal political wing of the IRA, said on Irish television late tonight that he "presumed" the IRA was responsible for the bomb. "I just presume that it is the IRA. I am more concerned with working out how we go forward," he said in an interview.
In a statement sent to Ireland's RTE broadcasting network just minutes before the blast, the IRA announced "with great reluctance" that "the complete cessation of military operations will end at 6 p.m. [1 p.m. EST]." It blamed Britain for the resumption of the IRA's bloody campaign, declaring that "time and again over the last 18 months, selfish party political and sectional interests in the London Parliament have been placed before the rights of the people of Ireland."
The predominantly Catholic IRA has fought for more than 25 years to end British rule in Northern Ireland in a struggle with mainly Protestant British unionists that has cost about 3,200 lives. It declared a cease-fire on Aug. 31, 1994, that led six weeks later to a similar declaration by its Protestant paramilitary counterparts in the province.
British Prime Minister John Major said the explosion was an "appalling outrage. . . . I now call on the leadership of Sinn Fein and the IRA to condemn immediately and unequivocally those who planted this bomb and any suggestions that the cease-fire is now over."
In Dublin, Irish Prime Minister John Bruton condemned the bombing as "entirely unjustified."
In Washington, President Clinton expressed deep concern at today's developments, saying that "the terrorists who perpetrated today's attack cannot be allowed to derail the effort to bring peace" to Northern Ireland.
Adams expressed his "sympathy" for those injured and his commitment to the peace process. But he declined to condemn the bombing.
The explosion tonight followed a familiar pattern. At about 6 p.m., the RTE network and the Belfast Telegraph newspaper received a warning, coded in a traditional way to authenticate its IRA source, saying the cease-fire was over. The caller told the newspaper that a bomb would go off at a commuter light-rail station at the Docklands area along the Thames River at the eastern edge of greater London. The paper alerted police in London, who hurriedly began evacuating the area.
About two minutes after 7 p.m., the bomb exploded. Apparently planted in an underground parking lot at the station, it shook buildings, including Europe's tallest skyscraper at Canary Wharf, shattered windows and cracked walls and ceilings for miles around. It flattened some people, sprayed glass on others and sent hundreds of area residents, Friday night pub crawlers and commuters diving for cover.
Authorities said six people were seriously hurt; about 30 more were hospitalized with bad cuts and bruises. Dozens of others suffered less serious injuries and received treatment at the scene. Police, fearing another blast, sealed off the area and cleared the roads as rescue teams arrived.
"It was a deafening noise," said Steve Holmes, a pub proprietor close to the blast. "All the windows came in, and the ceiling fell down. Everyone just flung themselves to the floor."
"There was this big massive bang," said Gary Cooper, who was in his apartment about 200 yards away. "It shook everything, knocked the door off the hinges.
"I was coming out of the gents' room at the station," said Raj Kumar. "The glass just started flying, and the roof started coming down."
While both Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups have administered "punishment beatings" within their own communities, the all-out warfare, including the attacks on police and British troops, ceased after the truces were declared. The governments of Britain and Ireland then began a slow process designed to bring the political parties in the province into negotiations toward a permanent settlement of the sectarian strife.
That process came to a halt about six months ago when the British government and the Protestant political parties demanded that Sinn Fein and the IRA begin "decommissioning" their arsenals of bombs and guns before they would start serious talks. Sinn Fein and the IRA refused, saying it would be tantamount to "surrender."
In an attempt to get the talks going, on the eve of a visit by Clinton to London and both parts of Ireland, the British and Irish prime ministers asked former U.S. Senate majority leader George Mitchell on Nov. 28 to head a three-member international panel to study the weapons issue. On Jan. 24, that panel recommended a compromise: that talks about the arsenals proceed simultaneously with all-party political negotiations.
Major responded by dropping his demand for arms decommissioning prior to negotiations but substituted another: a proposal favored by the Ulster Unionist Party, the main Protestant political organization in Northern Ireland, that elections be held in the province to choose negotiating teams. The Catholic parties -- including Sinn Fein and the more moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party -- joined the Irish government in strenuously rejecting that idea.
That prompted predictions from Northern Ireland police as recently as this week that violence could resume, particularly in Britain.
Adams, who is credited with playing a key role in bringing the IRA into the peace process, joined a parade of officials from Belfast, London and Dublin to Washington recently to press their respective cases on Capitol Hill and particularly at the White House, which has taken an active part over the last two years in urging the parties toward peaceful resolution of their longstanding conflict.
Politicians and religious leaders from all sides pleaded tonight for calm. "I have prayed we would never go back to this nightmare," said Church of Ireland leader Robin Eames.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company