Idle bomb squad now sells advice Underemployed: With the IRA quiet, British bomb experts in Northern Ireland have become the Maytag repairmen of their dangerous craft.

November 12, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CARRICKFERGUS, Northern Ireland -- So what's a bomb expert to do when people stop planting bombs in the neighborhood?

That's the problem facing the last two men left in the explosives section at the Forensic Science Agency of Northern Ireland. They used to be the busiest men in town, part of a 20-member team that sifted through wreckage left by terror bombers during the 25-year "troubles" that battered the landscape. Now that the terrorists have been mostly silent for two years, they're about as busy as the Maytag repairman.

So their skills are being marketed for a worldwide audience of governments, law enforcement agencies, even lawyers.

"We're on a learning curve," says Gerry Murray, an explosives expert with 23 years' service at the forensic agency. "Forensic scientists aren't necessarily good at marketing."

Murray's abilities are respected worldwide. He is one of five scientists advising a panel that is investigating allegations of wrongdoing at the FBI's crime lab.

The panel of experts and prosecutors was assembled by the Justice Department's inspector general to examine claims made by a veteran FBI special agent, Frederic Whitehurst, that top lab officials slanted or mishandled evidence in many cases over the years, including the Oklahoma City bombing.

"Gerry Murray is one of the premier people in the world in analyzing explosive residues and has been an invaluable member of the inspector general team," says David Frederick, a Justice Department attorney working on the investigation.

Here, though, he is idle -- which is not altogether a bad thing.

The idleness of Northern Ireland's bomb experts is yet another sign of the remarkable changes that have taken place here since the Irish Republican Army called its cease-fire in September 1994 in the war that's left more than 3,200 dead since 1969.

Even though the truce has been shattered with high-profile strikes on the British mainland -- and one dramatic IRA attack at a British army base in Northern Ireland -- the bombers haven't gone back to work full time. And there are continuing hopes that the IRA may renew its cease-fire before Christmas.

But all that good news is posing challenges for the explosives experts and their bosses at the forensic agency. The explosives experts need cases to keep their skills sharp. And the agency, which handles Northern Ireland's full range of crime, needs to stir up business. The British government encourages its public service agencies to break even financially.

So, for the first time, the agency is raising its public profile, even opening its doors to reporters at its heavily secured former factory site on the outskirts of this town near Belfast. That's actually big news around here.

In 1992, the agency was forced to move from its old headquarters in a hurry after the IRA blew the place up with 3,500-pound bomb. One of the forensic scientists was also shaken up in another attack, when the armored police car he was riding in was hit by a home-made mortar.

"We've got to sell ourselves," says Jim McQuillan, a chemist who now markets the agency.

McQuillan's task is difficult. He can't boast too much about the agency's abilities for fear of inviting terrorist action against it. He also can't secure too much business in the event the bombers go back to work.

But if you need to train explosives experts, or if you're looking for a second opinion in a bombing case, this is the right place. Agency scientists also can provide services from DNA profiling to firearms and fibers analysis.

They'll even negotiate a fair price.

But explosives figure to be their big selling point.

During the late 1970s through most of the 1980s, the agency handled hundreds of explosives cases a year as the IRA tried to bomb the British army out of Northern Ireland. Last year, there were only 60 cases, and many of those were fireworks-related.

Down at the explosives lab, Murray and his partner, who prefers to remain anonymous, now have plenty of time to give an interview.

"It's quiet here at the moment," Murray says.

The agency has gone public in other ways. It was recently profiled in a Northern Ireland trade magazine. Recently, the agency also launched a site on the World Wide Web, where it details its history, services and job opportunities.

The phones don't ring much. The beepers are silent. The men can even spend leisurely weekends at home -- all in stark contrast to previous years, when the men hustled around Northern Ireland, sifting for clues in one horrific blast after another.

These trained chemists know bombs. Big ones, small ones, bombs made from plastics and fertilizers, bombs placed in cookie tins and cars, bombs detonated by clocks, batteries, radar guns, even camera flashes.

They talk of "cynical" devices timed to go off within minutes of one another at sites around the country, of bombs that killed children, and of kidnapped drivers strapped to steering wheels in runaway bomb-laden cars aimed at military posts.

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