Heathrow: Politicians play down airport chaos: Ministers wary of handing IRA propaganda victory as travellers endure more disruption

THE Government adopted a stance of studious under-reaction to the chaos caused at Heathrow and Gatwick by the IRA yesterday, and resisted demands for army protection and a Commons statement.

The determination not to hand the IRA a propaganda victory came as No 10 re-emphasised Friday night's joint statement from John Major and Albert Reynolds, the Taoiseach, that there was nothing the men of violence could do to deflect them from the Downing Street Declaration.

The IRA last night claimed the Government had a negative stance towards peace, compared with the 'positive and flexible' IRA attitude. It said a continuing opportunity for peace existed: 'We have a vested interest in achieving a just and lasting peace. We are prepared to be flexible in exploring the potential for peace. All concerned should leave no stone unturned.'

Dick Spring, the Irish foreign minister, said that the attacks had turned Sinn Fein's internal discussions on the peace process into a bizarre charade. 'The people on the two islands must view with growing dismay the prospects now for an early cessation of violence,' he said. But the latest incidents would not deflect the Irish and British governments from their search for peace.

Amid the distinct lack of appetite for fresh political initiative, Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said the issue was one of political, not security, shortcomings. 'I fear that what we now appear to have is not just a comprehensive repudiation of the Downing Street Declaration, but perhaps the beginnings of a sustained mainland offensive from the IRA.'

Sir Ivan Lawrence, Tory chairman of the all-party Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, led the troop demands, saying that the public would be reassured by army movements around the airport. He told BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend that it was clear the IRA had no interest in the peace talks. 'The British and Irish governments have got to concentrate rather less on that aspect . . . and more on taking out the IRA.'

However, Dublin has blocked hard-line, cross-border security co- operation, arguing the need to avoid over-reaction and excessive costs.

Terry Dicks, the Tory MP whose Hayes and Harlington constituency includes part of the airport, urged an army presence 'for a time, anyway', and said that he would submit an emergency question on the latest attack to Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, today.

But while Mr Major told yesterday's Sunday Express that the option of internment in Northern Ireland had not been ruled out, Mr Howard has no immediate plans to make a Commons statement on mainland security implications. Yesterday he declined a request for an interview by this morning's BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, responded to MPs' demands by saying 'nothing is ruled out'.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor, Tory chairman of the Defence Select Committee, said he believed that a military presence would help police at risk of being overstretched because mortars could be fired from such a wide area. Other MPs backed calling in the 2,000-strong RAF Regiment which specialises in airport defence.

Another MP highlighting the off- airport source of the attacks was David Wilshire, the Tory MP whose Spelthorne constituency also includes part of Heathrow. But he conceded that few of his constituents warmed to the idea of the British Army 'rummaging around in their garden sheds'.

Alan Keen, Labour MP for Feltham and Heston, near the airport, said army protection would make Heathrow an even bigger target. 'More resources need to be allocated - more police officers, more cameras, but not the Army.'

Leading article, page 13

(Photograph omitted)

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