The bombs that failed to explode in English targets last week reveal the tactical limitations of the lingering terrorist network
Usually it is as well to attribute some tactical intelligence to an enemy, just in case. With Irish republican groups, which have for centuries now been bringing bombs to London and other parts of England, this isn’t always easy.
Sending a parcel bomb to an army base, even if it goes off, is not appreciably going to affect the balance of forces between the last standing factions of the IRA and what they prefer to call the British war machine. So the first assumption must be that those bombs intercepted in recent weeks were not military strikes in the ordinary sense. They were more akin to acts of protest, or armed propaganda, as the Provos described their campaign. In that respect, they were in character with the slaughter of Lee Rigby. The objective was not to weaken the British army – how could they? – but to advertise a cause in a dramatic way.
The more pertinent question is how well the parcel bombs functioned as advertisements for the cause of militant republicanism. In the early 1970s, the Provisional IRA worked out that a bomb in London gets more attention in the media than a bomb in Belfast. So the Price sisters, Dolours and Marian, and Gerry Kelly and their team took bombs to the Old Bailey and other London sites and got caught. That is also what often happened to IRA bomb teams in the 1940s, when Brendan Behan’s bloody investment in Ireland’s cause at least earned him the material for his novel Borstal Boy.
And IRA members were less likely to risk imprisonment in England than in Northern Ireland, where they would at least be slopping out among friends. Faced with that reality, the IRA technicians devised the parcel bomb, a weapon that could be delivered by the Post Office. The first of these was sent by Shane Paul O’Doherty (not, to my knowledge, a relation) as recounted in his own memoir The Volunteer.
But a parcel bomb, serving as an attention grabber, has to do two things. First, it has to shock a lot of people, and not just with a big bang: it has to make headlines and get talked about in the media. It wouldn’t have taken an Alistair Campbell to work out that there was little point in competing with the floods for the front pages. Britain, the historic enemy, inconveniently had other things on its mind. The story was not going to be a big one – unless the bombs went off, of course.
Which is part of the other thing a bomb has to do. It has to destroy itself, even if it fails to destroy anything else. Otherwise it’s just a little parcel of forensic evidence. So, judged by these objectives, to get attention and obliterate the evidence, the parcel bomb campaign …read more