London blast also shatters Belfast calm Toll at scene rises with 100 injured and 2 found dead

IRA claims responsibility

Police in flak vests again on patrol in Northern Ireland

February 11, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- After more than a year of relative peace, the people of Northern Ireland were hit yesterday by the aftershock of a terror bombing in London and the Irish Republican Army claiming responsibility for the blast.

The IRA, in a statement to an Irish television network, said it set off the half-ton car bomb, which exploded Friday in the Docklands business district in east London and threatened to shatter the Northern Ireland peace process.

Police yesterday discovered the bodies of two men amid the wreckage of the 15 damaged buildings. More than 100 people were injured in the explosion, which occurred an hour after the IRA unexpectedly announced it was ending the cease-fire that dated to Sept. 31, 1994. Here, police were for the first time in more than a year wearing flak vests on routine patrols, and British Army soldiers patrolled near the international airport.

But it remained unclear whether the bombing was a one-off warning to the British to start stalled peace talks or if it signaled the beginning of a wider terror campaign by the paramilitary group, dedicated to forcing Britain from Northern Ireland.

Queen Elizabeth condemned the "sickening act of violence." But it was British Prime Minister John Major and Irish Prime Minister John Bruton who applied the most severe pressure on the IRA to give up its guns for good, and for its political wing, Sinn Fein, to condemn the bombing.

"The IRA has once again callously threatened the desire for peace. They will not be allowed to prevail," Mr. Major said in a statement. "The IRA and Sinn Fein must say now that their campaign of violence has stopped and they will never resume it again."

The Irish government also announced that it would not meet with Sinn Fein until the IRA resumed the cease-fire. "You do not meet with organizations which are supporting a campaign of violence," Irish Prime Minister John Bruton said in Dublin.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams refused to condemn the attack and said he had not known about it in advance, a claim apparently believed by British intelligence experts. That raises the possibility of a breach between the political and military wings of the IRA.

In a round of television and print interviews at Sinn Fein's heavily secured headquarters, Mr. Adams called repeatedly for peace talks to begin despite the bombing. "I could fulfill the ritualistic selective condemnations which are so beloved by other politicians," Mr. Adams said. "It would not help with the task of persuading people involved in that operation."

"How do we pick up the pieces?" Mr. Adams added. "By starting talks now."

But starting talks has been the major difficulty all along. The bombing came after months of false starts and false hopes in the peace process, which had brought a temporary end to paramilitary attacks that left more than 3,000 dead over a 25-year period. Northern Ireland's Protestant majority favors continued union with Great Britain, while the minority Catholic population has sought to unite the province with the Irish Republic.

The last few weeks saw peace negotiations deadlocked over demands by Mr. Major that the IRA begin handing over its weapons before talks that would involve both Northern Ireland's Protestants and Catholics, plus Great Britain and Ireland.

In Belfast, citizens cast blame in almost every direction. Some said Mr. Major torpedoed any chance of peace because he refused to quickly bring all sides together for all-party talks. Others say they never trusted the IRA to put down its weapons for good.

Along the Falls Road in the heart of Catholic West Belfast, there was little appetite for a return to violence.

Harry Burns, a butcher by day and a cabdriver by night, said "people were crying like babies," when they heard that the cease-fire had ended.

"A lot of people are frightened," Mr. Burns said. "Now, you're going to have to watch who is behind you.

"There are a lot of depressed people around here. Twenty-five years of violence is long enough. People don't want another 25 years of violence."

Inside the Hardware House, Mary Hughes and Margaret McDonnell sipped tea and swapped opinions on the return to violence.

"You ask yourself, when are they going to start bombing here?" said Mrs. Hughes. "Everyone is really too shocked to even talk about it much."

"Too many people want peace now," said Mrs. McDonnell. "Hopefully, they'll all get together and stop this."

Over on the Shankill Road in Protestant Belfast, there was anger over the IRA's role in the bombing. But many also expressed the hope that the peace process somehow could be revived.

"I suppose this was half-expected," said Charles Smart, selling shoes at Kitsons store. "You just hope that everyone keeps their heads."

Violet Clarke was near tears as she discussed the bombing.

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