New IRA strategy is 'non-lethal disruption'

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The Grand National disruption appears to represent a carefully- calculated new phase of IRA strategy in its campaign of violence in England. With just a few telephone calls, one of Britain's great sporting institutions was thrown into disarray.

The IRA have thus managed to place themselves, yet again, at centre-stage. The intended message is that the Irish question can be expected to continue to intrude into the political, social and economic life of Britain.

It can now be seen that the recent bombs at Wilmslow station and in the motorway system were not sporadic and impulsive acts of terrorism. The intention was to make the point that the authorities have to be on their guard not just against major bombs in urban centres but also against generalised disruption.

Since actual bombs were used in the Wilmslow and motorway incidents, the security authorities clearly had to take the Aintree telephone calls seriously. The railway and motorway bombs were aimed not only at causing disruption, but also at ensuring that the big race would be called off. Given the coded warnings, together with the recent explosions, police had little option but to evacuate the course.

Security sources in Britain have for some months been speculating that the IRA had ambitions to attack the country's infrastructure, possibly targeting water and electricity utilities.

The Grand National bomb warnings appear to represent a slight variation on this approach. The dislocation of rail, road and now horse-racing are evidently not primarily aimed at taking life. The aim was one of non- lethal disruption.

This ties in with the circumstances of the general election campaign. The IRA's political manifestation, Sinn Fein, hopes to win up to three of the 18 Northern Ireland seats.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and two of his right- hand men, Martin McGuinness and Pat Doherty, are among those in contention. All of them look like possible winners, yet in all three constituencies - West Belfast, Mid-Ulster and West Tyrone - the results may be close. Since some floating nationalist voters may be alienated by IRA killings during the election campaign, republican political strategists may be arguing internally that the IRA should try to aim for disruption rather than deaths.

The Grand National's abandonment yesterday may therefore be an illustration of a compromise struck between the violent and the political aspects of the republican movement. The IRA may have decided to concentrate on incidents which will probably be non-lethal.

Sporting events have not normally been targeted by the IRA, but the organisation is renowned for the way in which it constantly adds new targets to its agenda. The authorities will now face a major re-think on how to safeguard not just the Grand National but all future major sporting fixtures.