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Britain's choice: the Provisional IRA then, ISIS now

The west's security elite should learn from the end of Northern Ireland's conflict.

Paul Rogers
23 June 2017
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Hundreds of people gather outside Finsbury Park Mosque to show solidarity for the victims of the attack on June 20, 2017. NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.A quarter of a century separates Britain's general elections of 1992 and 2007. Comparing the two results is the stuff of much political commentary. But there is a less remembered connection with much greater relevance, for it goes to the heart of Britain's currrent security dilemmas.

The 1992 vote took place on Thursday 9 April 1992. On the next day, two huge bombs exploded in London, both planted by the Provisional IRA. They were intended to target the city’s economy, just at the time when it was vying with Frankfurt to be the financial capital of Europe. The PIRA aim was to discourage any major European bank or finance group from locating in London (see "The asymmetry of economic war", 14 February 2008).

The first bomb disrupted one of London’s busiest road junctions, where the M1 motorway joined the North Circular Road. The second detonated outside the Baltic Exchange, in the heart of the city’s central business district. PIRA did not want to kill people although there were three deaths in the city bombing. The damage to many of the gleaming high-rise offices was assessed at a billion pounds.

The PIRA aim was to discourage any major European bank or finance group from locating in London.

PIRA’s campaign was to last for five years, interrupted by a short ceasefire. Over the whole period, another large bomb exploded in Bishopsgate, also in the City of London; three bombs were intercepted before they could be used; another damaged buildings at London’s secondary business district of Canary Wharf; and yet another did huge damage to the retail heart of Manchester. In addition there were scores of smaller attacks, commonly on transport targets such as railway terminals, motorways and bridges.

In some ways PIRA’s campaign did have the intended effect, in that it prompted an increase in the UK government’s informal talks with Sinn Fein representatives. It certainly made Tony Blair’s Labour Party prioritise the Northern Ireland conflict when it took office in 1997, a policy shift which led on to a long-term peace process which survives to this day (see Paul Arthur, "The end of the IRA's long war", 28 July 2005).

There were many other factors involved in the transition in Northern Ireland, not least the slow social and economic emancipation on the nationalist minority. But a particular feature of those London bombings is notable and has a particular resonance now, namely the pressures of increased security in the context of threats to community cohesion.

Throughout PIRA’s campaign the British government denied very strongly that it was having any effect – the City of London was still very much open for business, there was no cause for concern and any foreign bank other financial institution would find a safe home.  All is OK, was the message.

In fact, the reality was very different. A huge increase in security was implemented, with a rapid expansion of the use of coordinated CCTV imaging years before it became common elsewhere. A “ring of steel” was put in place around the central business district, closing off most of the streets in and out, with the few remaining open to vehicles were subject to 24/7 police control. Most significant of all was the way the city authorities ran frequent meetings for the most senior foreign financial heads, including confidential breakfast sessions at the Mansion House.

History doesn't rhyme

Now look at the current situation. In London and other parts of Britain there are attacks from ISIS-supported individuals and groups, while anti-Muslim bigotry is intensifying, most recently shown by a terror attack on a group of Muslims leaving the Finsbury Park mosque in north London. The beleaguered ISIS leaders in Syria and elsewhere may hardly be able to believe their success in being able to damage community cohesion in this and other lands of the far enemy.

The significance of all this, and the link with PIRA’s campaign in the early 1990s, is that this time the police openly say that they have difficulty in coping. The pressures are reportedly so high that officers are having to be diverted from many other duties, with more resources urgently needed.

There are other factors involved. The previous Conservative administration cut police spending substantially, Theresa May’s new government is hanging by a thread and therefore particularly susceptible to demands for more resources, the tactics being developed by ISIS are not always obvious, potential attackers can be very difficult to pinpoint and all too frequently willing to give their own lives.

For ISIS, though, it is different. There still seems to be a quaint assumption that military suppression in Iraq and Syria will reduce the movement to a mere rump.

There is one further contrast. In the 1990s the underlying drivers of the Northern Ireland conflict were well understood. PIRA may have been labelled terrorists with whom it was quite impossible to engage – but their motives were known, their intentions were plain, and steps were already underway to address the underlying drivers of the conflict. The London bombing campaign may have focused political minds in Whitehall and Westminster, but it also speeded up an existing process.

For ISIS, though, it is different. There still seems to be a quaint assumption that military suppression in Iraq and Syria will reduce the movement to a mere rump, that there is little connection between the US-led air war with 50,000-plus ISIS supporters killed and the attacks in the UK, France, Belgium, Germany, the US and Turkey. Even more so, there is scarcely any understanding of why ISIS has survived the air onslaught, why it is expanding in Egypt, Afghanistan, the Philippines and elsewhere and, crucially, why it continues to get support.

In the mid-1990s, the leading protagonists brought the Northern Ireland conflict to an end. In the late 2010s, the west is nowhere near changing its approach to the “war on terror”. That is why this conflict, unlike the one that ended two decades ago, has many years still to run.

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