Near-Miss at Number 10

February 08, 1991

The mortar attack on the British cabinet from a public thoroughfare not 100 yards away was the IRA's most spectacular assassination attempt since the bomb that killed five persons while missing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the Grand Hotel in Brighton in October 1984.

Yesterday's mortar rounds failed to kill Prime Minister John Major, but did create an image that 10 Downing Street, where he lives and works, is not safe. And the attempt won points for audacity, from anyone who awards such points.

But above all, this incident showed the fragility of a civilized society where anyone can stand opposite the door of power and watch the rulers come and go, where tourists are welcomed just outside the inner sanctum. It is the price a leader pays in any free country for refusing to live like a Saddam Hussein seeing potential assassins everywhere.

"Whether the gulf war goes on for weeks or years," said the IRA in bragging of the attack, "let the British Government understand that, while nationalist people in the Six Counties are forced to live under British rule, then the British cabinet will be forced to meet in bunkers." Not true.

The British cabinet does not have a bunker mentality. As a result of this near-miss, it and all governments may take on a little more such mentality with further security measures. For there was nothing uniquely Irish in the assassination attempt. The demonstration of one technique may be suggestive to terrorists elsewhere. Other leaders will need to rethink their own security.

The distinction between Britain and Ireland grows less each year. The development of Europe into a single place will erase even customs borders next year. The Anglo-Irish Conference creates a consultative role for the Irish government where Britain is nominally sovereign, which could in time be reversed. In this context, the way to move Northern Ireland out of Britain into Ireland is to convince the majority of its people that this should be done. In the absence of that, it won't be done.

Killing a British prime minister would not bring Irish unification closer, but push it farther away. The IRA is not concerned with the practical achievement of its stated aims. The IRA does what it knows how to do for the sake of doing it.

Before the Irish can have a single government they will have to think they are a single people. The IRA is the greatest barrier. Every so often it hits the train between Belfast and Dublin. That is the symbolically perfect target. The IRA is out to destroy whatever community exists between the two Irelands, while pretending to want to unify them.

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