Ben Lowry: Events after Canary Wharf show that the IRA’s London bombs focused minds

The Canary Wharf bomb scene, in 1996
The Canary Wharf bomb scene, in 1996

This week was the 20th anniversary of the Canary Wharf IRA bomb.

When the Belfast Agreement was struck in 1998, the then unionist MP Robert McCartney said it was all about keeping bombs out of the City of London.

Jonathan Ganesh, of the Docklands Victims' Association, on Tuesday marks 20 years since the Canary Wharf bomb

Jonathan Ganesh, of the Docklands Victims' Association, on Tuesday marks 20 years since the Canary Wharf bomb

He was an unwavering opponent of that deal. I was what he would presumably consider to be one of those wishy washy types who supported it, but I have never doubted that there is some truth in his analysis.

In February 1991, the IRA launched a mortar bomb attack on Downing Street as the (Gulf) war cabinet met, with one device exploding in the garden of Number 10.

In April 1992, the IRA bombed the Baltic Exchange using 100lb of Semtex, causing the largest blast in London since World War Two. Three people were killed. The damage was estimated at £1 billion in cost.

In April 1993, the IRA detonated a huge truck bomb at Bishopsgate in the heart of the financial district, causing one death and inflicting £350 million of damage.

Another picture from the 20 year commemoration service at Canary Whart

Another picture from the 20 year commemoration service at Canary Whart

Then in 1996 the IRA broke its 1994 ceasefire with the docklands bomb, killing two people and causing £150 million in damage.

Eighteen months previously, when the first IRA ceasefire was announced in August 1994, I had been working in San Francisco and remember being surprised that the declaration was such a story, even on America’s distant west coast.

In 1996, I lived in Hackney, three miles northwest of Canary Wharf. The bomb was not such a big worldwide media moment, but it was an event of huge significance in the timeline of events that led to a political settlement.

One day we might find out what the IRA high command thought about that attack. Perhaps they were divided. I have long suspected that some of them felt unease at the murders of RUC constables David Johnston and John Graham, shot dead at point blank range by brutal killers (now dissidents?) in Lurgan in June 1997. It brought to a close the lapse in the ceasefire, which was restored in July of that year.

Tony Blair, who was by then prime minister, was keen to push things along towards a deal. The following month, August, Mo Mowlam announced that Sinn Fein could enter the talks.

The Belfast Agreement was signed the year after Canary Wharf, which echoes the way in which the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement was signed the year after the 1984 Brighton bomb.

In both instances, the deals were not of course merely the result of the preceding bomb spectaculars. They were the outcome of a complex set of factors and they had their origins years earlier. But the explosions did focus minds in London.

The three big bombs that were aimed at London commercial targets caused damage costing a total sum approaching £2 billion, and incalculable harm to the capital’s reputation as a safe place to do business.

By early 1995, well before the last of those three bombs, an apocryphal story was doing the rounds about how Japan’s ambassador to Britain had told John Major that it was intolerable that there were bombs going off in the City of London and that the UK needed to get to grips with the underlying issues.

Whether or not such a discussion ever took place, it does seem obvious that major investors in London would have been concerned about the threat of blasts.

We have for decades now been told that the City is seen around the world as a dynamic place for global commerce and that it is at the heart of Britain’s economic success. Protecting it as such a place would be a high priority for any government.

In the immediate aftermath of Canary Wharf there were calls for a ring of steel to be erected around the City.

Late one night, around 1998, I skirted the City as I drove an Australian friend to his accommodation, south of London Bridge, after we had finished an evening shift at Rupert Murdoch’s News International plant, Wapping.

Suddenly unmarked vehicles including plain clothes officers stopped my battered old car with its Northern Ireland registration.

The security forces had become vigilant about traffic movements.

That was far from the most significant consequence of the attack.

AN ATTACK ON ONE OF THE WORLD’S GREATEST CITIES

A diverse crowd of people gathered on Tuesday at Canary Wharf to commemorate 20 years since the blast. MPs from across the spectrum – Labour to Tory – Muslims, Afro Caribbeans, English, Irish, construction workers and so on.

It was a reminder that it was an assault on one of the most vibrant, multi ethnic and successful cities in human history.

Among those in attendance were senior officers from the Metropolitan Police, Conservative MP and chair of the NI Affairs Committee Laurence Robertson, former Labour MP Andrew Mackinlay, Enniskillen bomb relative Aileen Quinton and foreign office minister Tobias Ellwood.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is deputy editor of the News Letter

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