A year after Docklands, bombers wait to hit again

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The Independent Online
The Docklands bomb of February last year not only claimed two innocent lives and caused millions of pounds of damage, but also caused a pall of something close to despair to settle over these islands.

That one brutal moment seemed to wipe out all the hopes generated by the 17 months of IRA ceasefire - apparently consigning Ireland not to a bright new future but to a rerun of the terrorist nightmare.

A year on, Northern Ireland remains in a dangerous balance, poised precariously between peace and war.

Peace has not been restored, but nor has there been a regression to the worst of the bad old days. The loyalists have stirred only fitfully, while the IRA is fighting half a war.

More violence is almost certainly in prospect. The security forces daily expect more attacks, both in Northern Ireland and in Britain, for all the signs are that the IRA is intent on using violence to ensure Ireland is at the top of the next British government's agenda.

In one way, this is a familiar IRA goal - for the organisation has spent decades clamouring for British attention, and using violence to try to get its way. Yet there have been profound psychological changes within republicanism, some of which led to the August 1994 ceasefire, and some of which were produced by the ceasefire itself.

That cessation was called to facilitate talks between the republicans and the other important elements, principally the British and Irish governments and representatives of Unionism. The Irish government, believing that the opening of negotiations was the best way of cementing the ceasefire, pushed for speedy negotiations; Unionist politicians were highly resistant to talks; John Major played a long game.

The Docklands killings represented an IRA judgement that London and the Unionists were not prepared to allow republicans into negotiation. Ever since, the air has been thick with recriminations, with republicans and the Government each accusing the other of trickery and bad faith.

Docklands marked the end of the IRA ceasefire, but that 17-month period has changed many things. It was clearly a flawed ceasefire, with 14 people dying - eight killed by the IRA and five by loyalists. The previous 17 months, however, had seen about 130 deaths. The killings, in other words, dropped to about one-tenth of their previous rate.

The saving of these lives was the most obvious peace dividend, but it was not the only one. There was a general lightening of the atmosphere and a great lessening of fear; community relations, originally at least, improved; and new horizons of economic uplift and a peaceful future were glimpsed. There was huge relief that the "long war" seemed over.

Within the republican community itself, the Government was as heavily criticised as ever - most specifically for not bringing Sinn Fein into talks. When the Docklands attack took place, republican supporters blamed London for the ceasefire breakdown, yet there was no accompanying appetite for a return to prolonged conflict.

Instead, there was general dismay that another long war might be in prospect. The leaders of the IRA have been prepared to risk another lengthy bout of conflict, even though most of them probably envisage a renewed peace process after the general election.

The republican grass-roots, who are notoriously reluctant to criticise the IRA in public, have not spoken out against the present bombings, yet there is absolutely no sign of any appetite for such attacks. The mood seems to be one of sullen acquiescence, coupled with a desire for a reconstructed peace process as soon as possible after the election.

This is not mere war-weariness. The tangible benefits of peace were on show during the ceasefire, and had a powerful and apparently lasting effect. The idea that the Troubles will be over in the not too distant future, and will end not with victory for any faction but with a negotiated settlement, also has deep roots.

Thus Docklands ushered in not an instant return to conflict on a pre- ceasefire scale, but a year of limbo and uncertainty. Within Northern Ireland itself last summer's standoff over the Drumcree marches did much to poison community relations, yet even that crisis did not precipitate a return to full-scale conflict.

But the fact is that the IRA's present half-war is an extraordinarily dangerous tactic. The likelihood of deaths is very high; the sleeping giant of loyalist paramilitarism could reawake; and events could easily escalate out of control.

Two opposing dynamics are at work - the belief that a revived peace process offers the only chance of an exit from the Troubles, versus the reservoir of communal bitterness and distrust. No one knows which will prevail.

Chronology of fear

9 February 1996: Lorry packed with explosives exploded near South Quay office complex in London Docklands.

18 February: Terrorist Ed O'Brien, 21, died when the 5lb Semtex bomb he was carrying ripped apart a bus in Aldwych, central London. Eight people injured.

16 March: Two large Semtex bombs planted under Hammersmith Bridge, west London, failed to go off.

17 April: Small bomb set off in house under renovation near Earl's Court, west London.No injuries.

15 June: Huge lorry bomb explodes at the Arndale centre, Manchester, injuring more than 200 people.

28 June: Mortar attack on the British garrison in Osnabruck, Germany, marks a return to violence on mainland Europe after six years. No injuries.

13 July: In the first incident in Ulster since end of ceasefire, a huge car bomb devastates a hotel in Enniskillen, injuring 17. Irish Continuity Army claimed responsibility.

7 October: Two car bombs explode at Thiepval Barracks, Lisburn, Co Antrim, the Army's Northern Ireland HQ; 31 people injured.

1 December: Failed attempt to blow up a security force vehicle in north Belfast using a Semtex-filled mortar bomb.

6 January 1997: IRA rocket attack on police officers guarding Belfast's court complex. No injuries.

13 January: Mortar fired at a RUC patrol in west Belfast. No injuries.

18 January: Two mortar bombs fired at a RUC patrol car on outskirts of Downpatrick.