Terrorists determined to force Britain out of Northern Ireland have launched what security experts fear will be a long-term campaign of violence on the English mainland. And British security authorities appear to be at a loss to know how to counter the campaign.
Comdr. John Grieve, national coordinator for antiterrorism in Britain, says the Irish Republican Army's successful attempt to force abandonment of the Grand National steeplechase on April 5 exposed the "enormous difficulty" of countering terror tactics aimed at "sensitive targets."
With two hoax phone calls, Commander Grieve says, the IRA succeeded in forcing 70,000 people to leave the racetrack at Aintree, near Liverpool, which is the annual venue of the country's premier horse-racing event. Some 250 million viewers around the world had been waiting to watch the race on TV.
The hoax calls at Aintree were the culmination of 10 days of IRA actions aimed at what Paul Rogers, a leading British security expert, calls "human and economic targets."
On March 26, two explosions on England's rail system caused massive disruption to trains on west-coast routes. The IRA later admitted responsibility for the blasts.
On April 3, IRA agents again made phone calls, warning that bombs had been placed under two busy freeways in northern England. The calls forced closure of the freeways for two days as police searched for, discovered, and disarmed explosive devices.
Because actual bombs had been used in the two earlier incidents, Grieve had no option but to treat the Grand National threat as "a matter of extreme seriousness." But no bombs were found at Aintree, and the steeplechase was run two days later on April 7.
In an attempt to reinforce the idea that the government would not yield to terrorism, Prime Minister John Major made an unscheduled appearance at Aintree on April 7.
By then analysts had decided that IRA strategy on the English mainland had entered what Paul Wilkinson, a security specialist at Edinburgh University in Scotland, calls "a new and disturbing phase."
New trend in IRA tactics and thinking
The Aintree threat "broke fresh ground in the IRA's escalating campaign," says Mr. Wilkinson. "Aintree is on the outskirts of Liverpool, which until now has escaped the IRA's attention, probably because it has a large Irish population. Obviously, thinking has changed."
His view is backed up by Kevin Myers, a senior columnist on the Dublin-based Irish Times. Mr. Myers points out that steeplechasing is "a passion for most Irish people," especially in parts of Ireland where support for the IRA still exists.
"More than any other sporting event, the steeplechase is the sport of the plain country people of Ireland," Myers notes. Cancellation of the Grand National was "proof that IRA ambitions about wooing public support within nationalist Ireland are finished."
Wilkinson, who advises the British government on antiterrorism, says: "We should be looking at the security policies that are in force and which need to be enhanced."
A source close to Grieve speculated that the IRA's high command may have been taken over by an extreme radical faction that cares little about winning support from ordinary Irish people. This, according to the source, would explain the choice of the Grand National, which was attended by thousands of Irish spectators, as a focus of IRA activity.
By failing to plant bombs at Aintree and relying on hoax calls, the IRA may have been paying a certain amount of deference to Irish people, the source said.
The new IRA campaign is happening in the midst of a general election which the opposition Labour Party is confident of winning.
Jack Straw, a senior member of Labour's campaign team, says the IRA may hope that a new government would soften its opposition to demands that British troops leave Northern Ireland. But after the Grand National hoaxes, Mr. Straw commented that a Labour government would consider bolstering "the fight against terrorists."