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Blast Won't Bury Peace, Leaders Vow

Terrorism: Irish Republican Army says it planted the London bomb, which killed two. British, Irish officials reaffirm their commitment to negotiating a settlement.

February 11, 1996|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Confused and off balance in the wake of a deadly terrorist bomb that ripped through London's East End, British and Irish leaders across the political spectrum Saturday vowed not to abandon the Northern Ireland peace process despite the outlawed IRA's return to violence.

British Prime Minister John Major declared that "the prize of peace is too precious to be squandered," and the Irish government issued a statement insisting that negotiations are the only way to heal the divisions of Northern Ireland.

Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the IRA's legal political wing, agreed that talks now are more urgent than ever.

"We need to deal with that new situation and speedily get into the necessary negotiations to bring about a peace settlement," he said.

The Irish Republican Army on Saturday erased any doubt about the origins of Friday's attack by claiming responsibility for planting the bomb in a parking garage. The explosion killed two newspaper vendors, whose bodies were recovered Saturday, and it injured at least 36.

The blast left a swath of wreckage and broken glass across the city's Docklands redevelopment area.

But perhaps more important for those trying to end the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, it also destroyed some key assumptions about the power structure of the IRA and Adams' ability to control its actions. And it left the path toward peace littered with unanswered questions.

The attack marked the first major IRA terrorist action since it agreed in August 1994 to abandon its 25-year-old campaign of violence in favor of negotiations. The IRA's goal is to end British control over six Northern Ireland counties and unite the region with the predominantly Roman Catholic Irish Republic to the south.

Just why the organization decided to end its self-declared cease-fire remains unclear, but it was well known that IRA hard-liners had become increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress toward genuine negotiations.

"Instead of embracing the peace process, the British government acted in bad faith," declared an IRA statement issued after the bombing.

For much of last year, negotiations were held up by a standoff over a British government demand that the IRA disarm before talks begin. But a high-profile visit by President Clinton breathed new life into the peace process last fall, and a special commission headed by former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) appeared to clear the disarmament obstacle in December.

However, when Major then insisted that special elections be conducted in the province before talks could start, Irish nationalists saw it as another attempt to avoid negotiations.

"These policies were pursued by the British government throughout the peace process, and they are the real cause of the present breakdown," Adams said Saturday.

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The Sinn Fein leader said he was unaware of the bomb plot until it was too late to call it off. He apparently learned of the impending attack only minutes beforehand from reporters seeking confirmation of an IRA message declaring an end to the cease-fire.

Sinn Fein initially denied the cease-fire had ended, then went quiet after the bombing. This fueled rumors that the attack may have been either the work of a rogue IRA cell or evidence of a complete split in the movement, with hard-liners breaking away to relaunch the terror campaign.

Saturday, however, it seemed more likely that the IRA's principal military leaders acted in concert, though separate from Sinn Fein. Those familiar with the organization argued that there was no evidence of a split and that the size of the bomb, its location and the coding contained in the warning all pointed to an action authorized by the central IRA leadership.

"It was probably the work of the general headquarters staff," commented one source in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, who declined to be identified by name. The source described that as "an umbrella group" for several cells that operate in Britain.

Some of Adams' political opponents--mainly among Protestant residents of Ulster wanting to keep the union with Britain--believe the Sinn Fein leader had to have known of the attack and is only playing a cynical game to bomb the parties to the negotiating table. Either way, the role and the power of Adams, considered a central figure in the negotiating process, have suddenly come into question.

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"If he knew what was going on, can you still deal with him? And if he didn't know what was going on, is it worth still dealing with him?" asked one Irish government official.

There has long been confusion about where and how the lines of influence run between Sinn Fein and the IRA, but it has been widely assumed that Adams exerted ultimate power over both. It was largely his work that turned the IRA from a fast-growing, chaotic organization in the mid-1970s into a tightly controlled, centralized group.

"Adams is all about control," one IRA observer said. "This has to be his nightmare."

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