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Friday 8 July 2005

Reliving the nightmare of terror all over again

Ruth Dudley Edwards on why this terrorist enemy is even more dangerous than anything London has seen before

ALL I could think of when I heard the first news of the London bombs was a weary, "Here we go again." It's a very London response.

The effects of terrorist attacks don't alter: dead and mutilated people; broken-hearted friends and relatives; destruction of property; damage to public confidence; and high and low levels of inconvenience.

All that changes are the perpetrators: in London, from 1973 it was the Provisional IRA; since 2001, the Real IRA; and now the enemy is Al-Qaeda.

The bad news is that this terrorist enemy is far more dangerous than any that have gone before: even at their most vicious, the Provos knew bombing tube trains was bad for business.

The good news is that Londoners seem as resilient as ever.

"I was lucky," is what most survivors are saying, and even bitter critics of the Iraq war are rallying behind the government.

I'm acutely aware that over the last three decades Londoners haven't suffered anything like the people of Belfast.

Until yesterday, since the first Provo bomb in 1973, when Gerry Kelly and his colleagues planted the Old Bailey bomb, killing one and injuring 230, we've got off comparatively lightly.

In total, 46 people have been murdered and around 1,000 injured by republican guns and bombs.

I've lived in London throughout that time and because of my awareness of how slight the threat was compared to what people in Northern Ireland faced every day, I've always taken a relatively relaxed view of security threats.

I was always the one who didn't want to leave the office when ordered to evacuate, who never had any fears about travelling on public transport and who would complain bitterly that to get rid of the litter bins at bus-stops and tube stations was a sign of serious wimpishness.

Yet I remember intensely some of the shocking events of that period, not least because, as someone from a nationalist background, I bitterly resented what was being done in my name.

In the mid-1970s, Pat Doherty's brother Hugh was one of the Provos' cherished Balcombe Street gang, who murdered shoppers and lunchers randomly with bombs and guns; in July 1982, pieces of horses and riders were scattered in Hyde Park and bandsmen massacred in Regent's Park; in 1990, horrendous destruction was visited on the City; and in 1996, two newsagents were murdered in Canary Wharf because republicans wanted to get into peace talks.

Londoners grumbled a bit, but those not directly affected soon forgot.

Occasional terrorist attacks were viewed rather like bad weather: you couldn't do
anything about them so you just got on with things.

We thought it was over after the 1997 ceasefire, yet, London being London, when the Real IRA started bombing in 2001, the reaction was a weary sigh: "Here we go again."

There are few Londoners who haven't expected an Al-Qaeda attack and already, the reaction is to think that - compared to Madrid - we've been lucky. Psychologically, the timing has been bad for the terrorists and good for the populace, and for that we must thank Jacques Chirac.

London was split over the Olympic bid, but because of Chirac's appalling behaviour, even opponents of the bid were jumping for joy on Wednesday because we beat the French. We all woke up feeling proud of London on Thursday, and that helped us deal with the horrors of the day.

Yet of course, there is apprehension. Every Londoner's worst nightmare is to be caught in a tube disaster. At times of heightened security, people did keep an eye out for unaccompanied bags. But now that it seems the suicide bomber has hit London, we are powerless. I go into central London on the Piccadilly line that runs from Heathrow, which is always full of people with baggage. It was bombed yesterday. All the notices recommending vigilance are now irrelevant.

I love London.The most cosmopolitan city in the world, it showed on Wednesday, as the brown and black and white faces beamed in triumph and hope over the Olympics, that it can unite around a vision.

We know that the victims of a bomb on a bus or a tube could be Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews and a myriad other religions as well as none. We know that - in a city whose residents speak more than 160 languages - the dead and maimed could be from anywhere in the world. But we know too that risk is a part of life.

Except for a few fanatics, we know that we all have to unite against this new and most ruthless of enemies. Our job is to stop the terrorists setting the agenda and to get on
with our lives in the usual way. We must say like those heroes and heroines of the Blitz:
"Here we go again. Now let's muddle through."

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards