Commuter trains, London subways, key highways, and now Britain’s premier horseracing event: The Irish Republican Army can stop them all with a phone call.
The outlawed group’s renewed sabotage campaign in England is putting the IRA and its Sinn Fein party allies back in the spotlight - as a thorn in England’s side, but with no dead civilians to explain away.
Their eyes are on the Northern Ireland negotiations, which resume after a May 1 election that may well see Prime Minister John Major lose power and Sinn Fein leaders win seats in the British Parliament.
On Saturday, the IRA forced 60,000 people to evacuate minutes before the Grand National steeplechase at Aintree, northwest England, an event being televised live to millions in Britain and Ireland.
The IRA caller to a local hospital warned of a bomb somewhere in the vast Aintree grounds. Another caller repeated the message to a police station. Bomb-disposal experts spent the afternoon futilely probing innocent bags abandoned by racegoers.
The stunt had Major wondering aloud Sunday what the IRA and its Sinn Fein party allies, now courting votes back home in Northern Ireland, could possibly be thinking.
“I suspect they were trying to cause the maximum disruption and maximum frustration,” Major told the BBC. That, and command maximum attention with minimum bloodshed before the general election.
To make the Aintree threat plausible, the IRA had to set the stage. The group lost valuable personnel in London last summer when anti-terrorist police arrested a dozen men, but the IRA unit in northwest England remained relatively intact.
On March 26, that unit left two small bombs that hurt nobody but snarled commuter rail traffic in the northwest. Last week, two more bombs beside major highways in central England - combined with hoax calls elsewhere - caused two-day traffic jams.
Making life difficult for people in England makes few waves for Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, where the IRA since October has been trying with scant success to kill soldiers and police.
Major said the IRA’s renewed effort to coerce Britain would make it harder for Sinn Fein to be included in peace talks set to resume June 3.