British workers, shoppers brave IRA bomb wave with dogged determination

December 17, 1991|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- The IRA is like the Grinch: It is trying to steal Britain's Christmas.

And as it was with the infamous (although eventually rehabilitated) villain created by the late Dr. Seuss, nobody here thinks they'll succeed.

"We're a pretty stubborn bunch in England," says Brian Hudspith, a spokesman for Marks & Spencer's department store. "We're going to conduct life as normal. We're determined that the terrorists won't win."

Conducting life as normal becomes more and more difficult as bombs go off with increasing frequency in and around London. Yet, the response on the part of the working and shopping public seems to be a very British determination to carry on despite the danger.

Yesterday, in probably the worst incident in England since last winter's IRA bombing campaign, an explosion ripped a track near BritishRail's biggest junction, Clapham Junction station in southwest London.

It happened at 6 a.m., 15 minutes after a telephoned warning from someone claiming to be with the Irish Republican Army, which is carrying out its threat to take its war against British rule of Northern Ireland to London.

Hundreds of thousands of workers and shoppers were unable to getinto central London, or got there hours late. Margaret Hodge, spokeswoman for the Association of London Authorities, said the disruption of the commuter flow "will cost London's business and economy dear."

About 40 percent of London's commuters travel into the city by rail, either directly or by connecting with the subway system, the massive London Underground subway.

But the Clapham bombing wasn't all. Also yesterday, the Underground, in response to a warning, closed all 13 of its stations that intersect with British Rail from 6 a.m. to 9.30 a.m. Nearly a million people were inconvenienced.

About 800,000 people pour through "the Tube's" 300 stations every weekday around those hours. Stations frequently have been closed in recent weeks as security agents investigate "suspect parcels." Trains often fail to complete their journeys owing to bomb threats.

The IRA has set off at least 25 firebombs this month. About 50 others have been defused.

"Given the IRA involvement in London in recent weeks, we've been on a steady security alert," said a spokesman for The Underground.

On Sunday, the IRA bombed the bookstore at the lavish new wing of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. On Saturday, incendiary bombs exploded in three stores in north London. All caused minor damage.

The weekend before last, Marks & Spencer's was bombed in Blackpool as were two other stores there, and on Dec. 1, four bombs went off in London.

No one has been injured, since most of the bombs exploded while the stores were closed. According to Scotland Yard, the IRA has been using young female "shoppers" to hide the devices amid the inventory of the target stores.

The IRA has claimed responsibility for nearly all the attacks. A statement issued in Dublin after the Trafalgar Square attack said: "The economic cost of disruption to daily life . . . will continue to rise as long as the British government and its army continue to occupy part of Ireland's national territory."

The disruption caused yesterday by the Clapham Junction bomb alone, according to the Association of London Authorities, will cost London business about $85 million. No one has volunteered to guess the ultimate financial loss from yesterday's scare in London's financial district, when thousands of clerks, stockbrokers, technicians and others who operate and live off the London Stock Exchange spent several hours out of their offices while police swept for a bomb.

Scotland Yard, which will answer no questions relating to its operations, strategy or tactics, did compare last winter's IRA campaign with the current one. Although the number of strikes ** by the IRA in London are more numerous this time, in February they were more deadly. They included simultaneous bombings in two train and Underground stations, Paddington and Victoria.

Forty-six people were injured by the bomb that went off Feb. 18 at Victoria Station and one was killed. Six days earlier, the IRA had mortared No. 10 Downing Street while Prime Minister John )) Major was holding a Cabinet meeting. There were no injuries.

Perhaps because there have been no injuries so far, no atmosphere of general apprehension has developed here.

People seem to be taking the most elementary precautions and are restrained only by the general disinclination to spend money that characterizes every recession, although some stores are doing better than others.

A spokesman for Harrods said: 'Trade is very good. People are still shopping quite happily. We've already sold out of our 1991 Christmas Teddy Bear," an item offered each year by the famous store.

"Though it is a difficult time for everybody, it hasn't deterred shoppers," the spokesman said. "We're not going to sit back and let it affect our lives."

Especially at Christmas, which in Britain is probably celebrated with more festivity and enthusiasm than it is in any country in the world, even the United States.

Without a firebreak holiday like Thanksgiving to restrain the yule spirit, decorations in London and other British cities begin appearing in early November. Trees with lights were up in Knightsbridge by that time this year, and lights were strung on Regents' Street.

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