Election '97: Security fears cast cloud on Labour's poll idyll

End of the road: After weeks of relentless campaigning, the party leaders can only put down their political arms, sit back and wait
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The Independent Online
The police and security services will be on high alert today amid fears that the IRA may choose the first day of the new government to continue its campaign of disruption.

Polling passed off peacefully yesterday following an unprecedented package of security measures, including the use of armed police officers at the Labour leader's home seat of Sedgefield, where police took the highly unusual step of using officers armed with Heckler and Koch automatic weapons, and wearing bullet-proof vests, to patrol the village and polling station at Trimdon, Co Durham.

A police spokesman said a small number of armed officers had been used in the Durham force's area for several weeks as part of the heightened security alert, and that the officers used yesterday were for Tony Blair's protection, rather than for voters going to the polls.

It made for an incongruous scene. Mr Blair in shirtsleeves, his wife, Cherie, and their children, Euan, 13, Nicholas, 11, and Kathryn, 9, looked relaxed under clear blue skies as they strolled to the tiny, flower-bedecked polling station at Trimdon Colliery Community Centre, shadowed by the armed police officers. Outside the Blairs' home - a large Victorian house situated half-way down a tiny dirt track - two officers, again in bulletproof vests and cradling automatic weapons, stood guard all day.

"We never discuss the specifics of security, but, along with other forces, we increased our anti-terrorism measures in the run-up to Christmas," said George Oliver, spokesman for Durham Constabulary. "There has been an increase in the public appearance of armed officers over the past few weeks along certain routes.

"Naturally, security for the principals in the election has to be taken seriously and it has been heightened in recent weeks because of the [terrorist] problems that have happened across the country."

Extra police officers were on duty at many of the country's 45,000 polling stations, and covert surveillance operations were carried out, along with bomb searches at the counting centres.

But anti-terrorist officers believe that today is a more likely target. The IRA may be tempted to seize the new government's attention by staging a series of bomb threats in the first hours of power. Any motorway, railway and airport closures will have added impact as all route-ways are expected to be clogged with people travelling for the Bank Holiday weekend.

There is also a precedent for a post-election hit. The night after John Major's victory in the 1992 general election, terrorists carried out two "spectaculars" with massive bomb blasts in the City of London and at Staples Corner at the southern end of the M1.

In the Baltic Exchange attack the IRA detonated a massive car bomb in the heart of the City, killing three people and injuring 91. The bomb at Staples Corner injured no one but caused extensive damage.

A spokesman for the West Midlands police, who have had to cope with several of the recent coded telephone warnings, said: "The pattern suggests that Friday is a more likely target than polling day.

"A Bank Holiday weekend on the first day of a new government is a choice target. With this in mind we are a number of security operations going on." A vast number of both covert and overt security operations were used yesterday to try and ensure that nothing prevented people going to the polls.

The IRA has demonstrated repeatedly in recent weeks their ability to bring mayhem to motorways, the railways and air services with coded telephone calls, some warning of genuine devices, some merely hoaxes.

Polling stations were scoured for explosive devices ahead of opening at 7am, additional police officers were on guard and voters faced the prospect of being searched.

Last Friday, the Home Office sent the acting returning officers in the constituencies of England and Wales unprecedented advice on how to minimise disruption in the event of bomb threats.

Similar advice went to officials in the Scottish and Ulster constituencies.

The party leaders and other prominent politicians were all closely shadowed yesterday by armed, plain-clothes officers.

In one of the few incidents yesterday to involve the police, a 19-year- old man was arrested at a polling station in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, on suspicion of impersonating another voter.

Back in Trimdon, the Labour leader kept his promise not to take anything for granted, even on the day of the polls, and visited several parts of his constituency to give support to party workers and to drum up a few extra votes.

At Trimdon Labour Club, where he was due to make his first speech as Prime Minister, there were scenes of excited anticipation. A bank of 16 television sets was set up to allow 400 members and guests to watch the results roll in. Federation, a Gateshead brewery, had arranged an election special to help the party along - beer at 79p a pint - and the John Wrightson rock 'n' roll band had been booked for the night.

"There'll be a few bottles of champagne drunk tonight," said Colin Thompson, the band's guitarist. "I'll try and get Tony up to play - but then, I've been trying to get him up since 1983 without success.

"I think you could say he's nurturing his talent."