Hard men and hard choices: London cannot be isolated, but Paul Wilkinson looks at other ways to beat the IRA

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The Independent Online
THE weekend bomb in the City of London demonstrates that the IRA's hard men have not been deflected from their tactics of bombing public places, despite the enormous public outrage over Warrington. It also shows that, in spite of recent police successes in intercepting massive truck bombs at Stoke Newington and Canary Wharf in London, the terrorists have abundant supplies of explosives and manpower. The day before the City explosion they bombed an oil tank at a North Shields terminal, and only hours after the City bomb, they hijacked two London mini-cabs.

No potential target can afford to relax its vigilance or security. There are no safe areas on the British mainland.

The IRA is one of the most experienced, sophisticated and well-armed terrorist groups in the world, but its presence on the mainland is very small. There may be only between 30 and 40 Active Service Unit members and helpers here. One of the chief reasons why it can do so much damage is the nature of its enemy: an easy-going, open society that presents a cornucopia of lucrative targets.

The appalling laxity of security measures to combat terrorism was demonstrated in the Baltic Exchange bombing on 10 April last year. Then, as now, the business community showed great determination to get back to business as usual. Yet although the IRA crowed about its success in causing such destruction, no significant measures have been taken since the Baltic Exchange bomb to improve protection against terrorist attack in the City.

At weekends, it appears, the City of London police do not have the resources to enforce parking restrictions in the key streets surrounding the financial centre. The City of London police commissioner has made it clear that the police only have the power to set up road blocks to stop and search vehicles when they have intelligence of imminent attack. There are continuing difficulties about the demarcation of responsibility between the City of London Police and the Metropolitan Police in dealing with bomb threats in the City.

On Saturday morning there was an unusually early telephone warning - more than an hour - given to the police by the IRA. Why did it take so long to identify the tipper truck, with its hazard lights on? Why was it not possible to defuse the device? These are some of the basic questions that must be addressed.

But a post-mortem is not going to be enough. The business leaders and the City's powerful political lobby will demand urgent and effective major improvements in security. The Government should listen to what they say and adopt measures that have the full support and co-operation of the business community.

The Prime Minister, Home Secretary, Attorney General and the commissioners of police will also need to consider further security measures. But they must avoid draconian overreaction. Putting a ring of steel around London would give the terrorists a moral victory and gravely damage the viability of the City as a major business centre.

There is no short-term solution to the vulnerability of the City. But there are practical and effective new measures that can be adopted without damaging democracy and the rule of law, and that will cause only minimum inconvenience to the public and the business community. All street parking should be totally prohibited in certain areas and this must be enforced 24 hours a day, every day of the year, by increasing police resources and manpower. The police should be empowered to stop and search vehicles wherever and whenever. Much greater use must be made of security video cameras, which proved their value in the Harrods bombing. Equipped specialist bomb disposal squads should be located in the heart of the City, ready for immediate response.

The additional cost should be borne by a direct subvention from the Home Office. The annual cost would be chicken feed compared to the huge sum the Government will have to find to compensate for the damage to the City.

In addition, the Government should urgently consider the introduction of forgery-proof identity cards and tenant registration rules compelling the owners of hotels, lodging houses and rented accommodation to report to the police the movement of tenants in and out of their accommodation. Such measures have been used effectively for decades in other European countries without the population feeling that they are living in a police state. It is a small price to pay for an enormous increase in the ability of police to apprehend and convict terrorists.

These short-term security measures will not be sufficient by themselves, however, if the strategy is inadequate. I have long argued that the authorities in the Republic of Ireland and in Britain should use the criminal justice system to bring the godfathers who direct the terrorist organisation to justice. Other European Community countries have achieved this without using the crude and counterproductive method of internment without trial. Why can't we?

It is time we used the high-quality intelligence the security services claim they have on the IRA's leaders to bring them to trial. If the judicial procedures, including witness protection, are inadequate, then why not strengthen them by using closed-circuit television and video testimony to protect witnesses? As other democracies have discovered, you cannot defeat a terrorist group unless you capture the brains of the organisation responsible for planning its attacks.

Last, but by no means least, we urgently need a dedicated national agency to combat terrorism, to direct and co-ordinate the strategy. The present mixture of 52 regional police forces, together with the Special Branch, the anti-terrorist squad, MI5, MI6 and military intelligence, is simply a recipe for unacceptable delay, confusion and miscommunication.

Even if there is goodwill between these services, as there is most of the time, the structure is simply too fragmented to work effectively. A dedicated national agency of this kind, recommended by Sir Hugh Annesley in a recent lecture, would bring together the best specialists in intelligence, policing, explosives, and combating terrorist racketeering and fraud under a single supremo.

We will not win this long, drawn-out war against the IRA unless we have an effective long-term strategy and a structure for combating terriorism that is capable of doing the job.

The author is Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews.

(Photograph omitted)

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