London Isn't Burning: How Britain's History With the IRA Made it Resilient in the Face of Attack

city of london IRA
the City of London after being devastated by an IRA bomb, April 24, 1993. Andre Camara AC/Reuters

On February 7, 1991, terror found its way right to the heart of the British government. A Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) operative launched three rounds from a homemade mortar at the cabinet room in No. 10 Downing Street. None reached its target, but one exploded in the back yard. Inside were then-Prime Minister John Major, members of his staff and his war cabinet for the first Gulf war.

“The door of the cabinet room flew open and a lot of, let me be charitable, slightly overweight and slightly middle aged policemen and security men arrived waving rather ancient revolvers,” says Charles Powell, then Major’s chief of staff, with typical British levity. Powell had just pushed Major down behind the cabinet table, he says: “I think my assumption was, this was perhaps getting rather more dangerous than it need be.”

Khalid Masood, the perpetrator of Wednesday’s attack on the British parliament was more successful in carrying out his violent aims, leaving 40 people injured and four dead. (Masood was also shot dead by police.) The attack came from a group that couldn’t be further from the IRA — the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) says it inspired the incident.

Long before ISIS or even al-Qaeda, Britain had experience dealing with terrorism; in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, the IRA enacted a campaign of terror with bombs, guns and even mortars on the British mainland. Britain’s security services have become highly effective since, and have been praised by countries around the world for their ability to collaborate and to effectively divide responsibilities.

So how does the threat of republican terror in the past differ from the threat of violent extremism today? And while some European countries have suffered a surge in attacks, is London—and Britain in general—any more dangerous a place than it was in previous decades?

For Frank Foley, a terrorism expert at the department of war studies at King’s College London says the threat posed by the IRA at its height in the 1970s was greater. The key distinction to draw, Foley says, is the difference between “intentions” and “capability.”

“If you look at intentions, it seems like we’re under greater threat today,” Foley says, “because jihadist terrorists are unrestrained; usually they try to kill as many people as they can, whereas the IRA in the past was more restrained.” For example, the IRA would sometimes ring in advance warnings of bomb attacks, allowing them to demonstrate their strength while limiting the loss of life. Successive Islamist extremist groups, meanwhile, have tended to favor headline-grabbing mass casualty attacks when acting in Western countries. But, Foley goes on, “you have to look at the other side of the equation, which is capability. The IRA had a much greater capability than jihadist terrorists do today in the U.K.”

In the 1970s, Irish republican paramilitaries were able to detonate bombs on the British mainland with startling regularity. In 1972, the Official IRA killed seven people in a blast at the Aldershot headquarters of the British Army’s Parachute Regiment. A year later, the Provisional IRA sent a unit to London and managed to detonate two bombs, injuring 180 and killing one. In 1974, 11 people were killed by a bomb on a coach carrying British servicemen and their families; in separate attacks, five were killed and 50 injured in Guildford, while 21 were killed in a pub in Birmingham. The list goes on.

Later, the IRA was able to mount attacks not only on Downing Street, but also on Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet at the Conservative Party conference in Brighton in 1984, and on important economic centers, such as the City of London finance district in 1993. In 1990, the IRA killed Conservative MP Ian Gow with a car bomb outside his home. Gus O’Donnell, who retired as Britain’s most senior civil servant in 2011 and was also present at the Downing Street attack as press secretary to Major, recalls the security measures government workers had to take during the years of IRA threat: “You had devices that enabled you to make sure there weren’t car bombs attached to your cars, you had protection at your home,” he says.

Not since the July 2005 bombings on the London Underground have Islamist extremists managed to successfully mount a bomb attack or a coordinated attack across multiple locations on the British mainland. So what has changed since the time of the IRA? Why can’t Islamists develop the same capability? In large part, says Foley, it was the impact of the September 11, 2001 attacks that changed the political attitude toward terrorism in Britain almost as much as in America: “9/11 changed everything; it changed terrorism from one of a number of security priorities including the Cold War, the challenge of Soviet Russia, and other challenges, it changed it from that, to the pre-eminent security challenge facing the Western world.”

But, he says, there were lessons learned from Britain’s long fight against Irish republican extremism, too. “They’ve learned that over-reacting to terrorism, having things like [the 1972 British army massacre] Bloody Sunday, or internment, are counterproductive, and it’s better to have a more restrained approach,” Foley argues. And a British government order in 1992 that gave domestic security service MI5 lead responsibility over Irish terrorism in mainland Britain  helped lay the foundations for effective future cooperation.

As Wednesday’s attack shows, that doesn’t mean we can write off the threat of Islamist terrorism to Britain. And, as O’Donnell notes, there are crucial differences when it comes to the current threat that make it in some ways more frightening than republican attacks. “The point about the IRA was it was something that we understood. We understood the history of why the IRA had their grievances, what they were trying to achieve. And there was a solution, which was to convince everybody in Ireland that it was better to work through the ballot box than the bomb,” he says. “It’s not clear to me that that’s at all a solution with ISIS.” ISIS’s eschatological belief system, aimed at inciting what it believes to be an inevitable war between civilizations, has little if anything in the way of legitimate political aims behind it.

At the least, though, Britain’s long history of domestic terror showcases the resilience of both its population and its politics in the face of attack. Parliament returned to business as usual after Wednesday’s attack, with a morning statement on the incident followed in the afternoon by a supremely mundane debate on the future of an incinerator in the sleepy southern town of Hoddesdon.

“We got rather inured to violence in the 70s and 80s in the sense that it was a regular feature of life,” says Powell. Foley agrees: “The reaction today is different; it’s more shrill, it’s more hysterical, from the media in particular, amplified then perhaps by social media, and if you look at the objective threat, this hysteria is not justified.” The British public, politicians and security services have much work through to do in combating the terror threat, but they can perhaps take some comfort by remembering this: The country has survived it before.