Election '97: Terror threat to election day

Click to follow
Unprecedented security measures are to be taken on polling day to thwart any attempt by the IRA to disrupt the general election. Polling stations are to be searched for explosive devices, extra police officers posted, some voters may be searched and returning officers have been given Home Office advice about terrorist threats for the first time.

The plans emerged on the day that two IRA bombs exploded under an electricity pylon close to a motorway and a housing estate north of Birmingham, as part of the wave of mass disruption to Britain's transport systems.

Police believe the IRA was attempting to send a 132,000-volt electricity pylon crashing down on the M6. However, no one was hurt when the devices exploded in the morning rush hour. The police later said the IRA gave inaccurate coded warnings, further endan- gering life. The explosions were the third time in eight days the IRA has tried to disrupt the election campaign by creating chaos via a series of coded bomb-threats.

The authorities intend to impose the tightest security measures seen this century surrounding a general election, on Thursday, to avoid further disruption. Among the precautions is the decision by the Home Office to send all 659 acting returning officers a circular telling them how to respond to an attack. It says: "Provided that an adequate security plan, based on police advice, has been put in place, it should be possible to avoid major disruption, such as evacuation of premises, in almost all circumstances.

"Should a bomb-threat be received, the police will assess its credibility and consider, in the light of the security measures in place, what level of response is appropriate. Their aim will be to enable the electoral process to continue uninterrupted unless that would pose a clear risk to public safety."

It adds that if voting did have to be abandoned the process could be completed the following day. Officials said that in the event of any coded threats being received, the presiding officers should arrange for the polling station to be searched again.

Home Office sources maintained that they had no intelligence about a specific IRA threat to polling day and serious disruption was considered unlikely. But they also acknowledged that recent IRA activity had emphasised that the general threat was high.

Chief constables of Britain's police forces will decide the level of security necessary at each of the 45,000 polling stations and 659 counts. Both the visible and more covert measures are expected to turn polling day into one of the biggest police security operations ever.

David Veness, the Metropolitan Police's assistant commissioner, revealed earlier in the week that police had been planning how to combat any IRA threat on 1 May for a some time.

A police source from a metropolitan force said yesterday: "Polling day is a prime target for the IRA. We have a large number of security measures - some covert - ready to be brought into play. This is an enormous operation, but we're sure it will do the job. There will be more police officers than usual and if anyone is acting suspiciously they may be searched."

Tickets to some counts have already been restricted and those attending on voting night can expect tight security.

In Northern Ireland, there has been no recent history of serious disruption on polling days. Since the early 1980s, when Sinn Fein has contested every election, polling has normally taken place in a trouble-free atmosphere.

One of the principal reasons for this pattern has been the fact that Sinn Fein activists have been anxious to secure as big a turnout as possible of their own supporters.

Meanwhile, the emergency services were yesterday having to cope with yet another series of coded bomb threats that crippled the motorway system in the Midlands, and closed Birmingham's main train station and Luton airport. Sections of the M1 and M18 in Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire were also closed for a time.

Travel chaos, page 5