ON THIS DAY 1991: How did this happen?

Front page 8th Feb 1991 Photo: EDP Library Front page 8th Feb 1991 Photo: EDP Library

Saturday, February 8, 2014
8:00 AM

As part of a new daily online series we look back on what was making the news on this day in Norfolk. Today, we look at the Eastern Daily Press front page of February 8, 1991.

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This blazing van stands testimony to the IRA’s bid to bomb the War Cabinet and throw the Goverment into crisis. They missed - by just a few feet. Last night the question was: How did this happen?

An urgent security probe was launched last night as police hunted the two IRA terrorists who tried to blow up the War Cabinet.

It will investigate claims that the mortar launch pad van was left for eight minutes in a high-risk area in Whitehall before a time delay switch sent a salvo of bombs on their way to Downing Street.

It appears the bombers had not been photographed by any of the security cameras operating in Whitehall.

But yesterday Commander George Churchill-Coleman, head of the anti-terrorist squad, denied there was a lapse in security.

Security has been tightened in Whitehall further since the Gulf War began and police have known since 1988 the IRA plotted such an outrage, after finding launcher and mortar bomb at a Provo’s bomb factory in Clapham, South London.

Mr Churchill-Coleman said: “There are limits how far you can go with security and precautions, bearing in mind you are dealing with a versatile and sometimes very cunning organisation”.

He said the terrorists took advantage of the weather and the Gulf crisis “to mount their cowardly attack. When people’s attention is diverted they will strike.

“It was a well-planned, but badly executed operation”.

In the attack three mortars were launched through the cut-out roof of a white transit van on the corner of Horseguards Avenue just 200 yards from the target.

According to witnesses, the driver of the van locked the door, ran to a waiting motorcycle being ridden by a second person and made off along Horseguards Avenue towards the Embarkment.

One of the Semtex-packed pipe bombs exploded in the garden of No 10, where the War Cabinet had just begun it’s meeting. Prime Minister John Major and his senior Ministers ducked for cover just feet away.

Mr Major calmly ordered Ministers and officials out of the Cabinet Room as part of a well-rehearsed security drill.

Then he went to the Commons this afternoon and declared defiantly the attack “was a deliberate attempt to kill the Cabinet. It failed - nor in any circumstances could it have succeeded.”

A cherry tree in the garden - behind Nos 10, 11 and 12 Downing Street - was destroyed in the blast and there was a large crater.

Windows were damaged mostly at No 12. But there was no structural damage and no broken glass found it’s way into the Cabinet Room.

Two other mortars overshot and landed on Mountbatten Green, just behind the Foreign Office, in Horse Guards Road, but did not explode properly.

The Queen took the rare step of altering a prepared speech to condemn the attack and said the bombers would never succeed in undermining Britain’s democratic system.

The IRA’s has claimed that the bombing - it’s first mortar attack on the British mainland - was planned when Mrs Thatcher was still in power. That was given weight when the anti-terrorist squad revealed the Transit van, registered A862 NAR, was brought in London last July by three men who paid cash.

Home Secretary Kenneth Baker told the House the van “stopped casually for a few minutes”. It arrived shortly after 10am and the mortars were fired at 10.08am.

The Prime Minister was cheered in all parts of the House as he entered the chamber shortly before Question Time.
He said the IRA’s tactics had failed to chance Government polices by “one single iota”.

“It’s about time they learned that democracies cannot be intimidated by terrorism and we rightly treat them with contempt”.

Mr Baker said the IRA had “attempted to strike at the heart of our Government. They have failed.

“One cannot fault police security. It has been stepped up in Westminster and Whitehall area, but incidents of this sort are very, very difficult to deflect or stop, a van stopped casually for a few minutes.

“This is something that hasn’t happened on our island before, and we will have to examine this incident very carefully indeed to see what we can gain from it.”

Mr Baker said: “We are assessing urgently the significance of this morning’s attack and its implications for security.

We will be looking again at physical security of the whole Westminster and Whitehall area.






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