The walled City

London fights the IRA in its financial heart

ANDREW PHILLIPS August 16 1993

The walled City

London fights the IRA in its financial heart

ANDREW PHILLIPS August 16 1993

The walled City

WORLD

BRITAIN

London fights the IRA in its financial heart

In medieval times, the City of London protected itself from gangs of brigands and hostile peasants with a massive stone wall pierced by eight sturdy gates. Now, the City has surrounded itself with another kind of security cordon to deal with a modem threat from the outside world—and once again there are only eight roads into the financial heart of Britain. Police have closed off all other streets leading into the legendary Square Mile of banks, securities companies and insurance firms as part of a campaign to stop bombers from the Irish Republican Army from undermining the City’s international reputation. “It’s a rather radical step,” acknowledges Michael Cassidy, chairman of the City’s policy committee. “But we are determined to protect a valuable asset.”

The value is indisputable. Along with New York City and Tokyo, the City of London is one of the world’s top three financial centres, with annual earnings of about $34 billion. That also makes it a tempting target for the IRA which, in the space of just over a year, detonated two massive bombs in the City’s narrow streets. On April 10,1992, three people died when a 100-lb. van bomb exploded alongside the Baltic Exchange building; then, on April 24 of this year, a bomb concealed in a dump truck devastated the Bishopsgate area, killing one man. The scars of the two blasts are still evident: 47 buildings remain empty and, 16 months after the Baltic Exchange bomb, workers continue to repair shattered buildings nearby. The IRA promised to continue the attacks and City firms clamored for protection. Most worrying to British officials was a discreet warning in a letter from the Japanese Chamber of Commerce in London that Japanese firms might be forced to look for a “safer alternative” elsewhere in Europe.

Those fears stung the City into quick action. Although only 6,000 people live in the financial district, its long history and key economic role give it influence far out of proportion to its population. The City is a self-regulating municipality with its own council and police force—and it moved promptly to discourage more attacks. In early July, police closed off 18 roads leading into the City, leaving only eight major routes for traffic in and out. Police, some armed with submachine-guns, now stop and search vehicles at temporary checkpoints. The strategy is to make it harder for the IRA to bring in another car bomb, but initial public reaction was largely negative. “When we start turning ourselves into a sort of armed camp,” complained Tony Banks, an east London MP, “then quite honestly the terrorists are winning."

The plan has other obvious flaws. Police cannot require a driver to open the car trunk for a search without a warrant, so random checks rely on the co-operation of motorists. Nothing prevents terrorists from carrying smaller bombs into the City in bags or briefcases. And experience in Belfast, where a much tighter security cordon has surrounded the commercial heart for years, suggests that bombers will simply turn to attack economic targets in unprotected areas. The City’s plan, say some critics, is little more than a publicity stunt designed to reassure the financial community that it is taking action.

At the same time, the terrorist threat has forced companies to protect themselves in less visible ways. Architects are redesigning shattered building so that they will be better able to absorb a blast. Emergency trading rooms and offices have been built, ready for the day when bombed-out currency dealers need to relocate on a few hours’ notice. Survive, a network of disasterplanning specialists, says its membership has shot up 60 per cent in the past 18 months, to 400 from 250 firms. And companies specializing in secure storage of sensitive computer records are doing a booming business. One firm, Security Archives Ltd., even offers space in the underground bunker used in 1944 by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower when he planned the D-Day invasion of France. The bunker, VA miles of tunnels under London’s West End, houses records from hundreds of firms. “Companies didn’t take the terrorist threat very seriously before,” says Frank Hopping, Security Archives’ marketing manager. “Now they’re saying, ‘It could happen to us.’ ”

Still, Londoners pride themselves on not allowing the IRA to change their daily lives. They draw on a long tradition of stoic defiance towards outside threats, and especially on the powerful folk memory of the Second World War, when the city endured the German blitz. After both major IRA blasts, companies were back in business within hours and merchants put the best possible face on the situation. Typical was Naresh Somaiya, manager of a men’s clothing store situated 300 m from the site of the Bishopsgate bomb. After all the windows in his store were blown out, he put out signs announcing “Bomb damage sale, everything reduced up to 75 per cent” and kept on trading. ‘We carried on in true Churchillian spirit,” he says. “Nothing stopped us.”

The City faces an uphill battle to make its security plan permanent. It can impose the roadblocks for only a year before seeking an act of Parliament to make them permanent. In the meantime, it has found an additional argument to bolster its case: limiting vehicles to eight entry points has discouraged many motorists from taking cars into the City. “People are telling me it’s a joy to walk around,” says City official Cassidy. “It’s become a semi-pedestrian area.” As a result, what began as a tough anti-terrorist plan may eventually be sold, at least in part, as an environmental measure.

ANDREW PHILLIPS