Gradually the security alerts on the Underground had become less frequent, and Tube drivers had even stopped telling passengers to take their personal belongings with them when leaving the train. Eventually the alerts ceased altogether, and searches on the way into museums and major tourist attractions became desultory and perfunctory. Londoners relaxed and forgot all about Ireland, except when news programs showed pictures of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams talking to British politicians and shaking hands with Bill Clinton, interspersed with vignettes of worried looking Unionist politicians full of gloomy prognostications of trouble, demanding the decommissioning of IRA arms before talks could decently, practically commence. The IRA cease-fire had begun.
But the Unionist politicians were themselves interleaved with excited coverage of signs of eased tension—unarmed police on Belfast’s streets for the first time since the early 1970’s, carefree Christmas shopping on Donegall Street, the dismantling of sections of the so-called “Green Line,” the fence which separates Republican and Unionist areas in Belfast and summit meetings between antipathetic enemies. Advertisements for Northern Ireland as a holiday and investment location became commonplace. Litter bins on station concourses, closed because of the last wave of bombings, began to be opened up again. The City of London was beginning to be reopened to vans and trucks. Television people and some journalists spoke of “new eras” and the like, as if the two well-armed, determined underground armies with incompatible aims responsible for all the violence since 1969 had just vanished away, negotiated into nothingness.
The words “the peace process” became a vaguely reassuring cliche, uttered endlessly and seemingly to the same effect (so Unionists thought, and think) in the nasal tones of John Major, the patrician drawl of Northern Irish Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew, or the harsh tones of Gerry Adams. American readers may not know that Gerry Adams was a barman before he became President of Sinn Fein, or that he is an amateur versifier, whose recent first compendium was briefly fashionable in Dublin’s literary salons. This latter characteristic he shares with Padraig Pearse, flamboyant Easter Rising hero, who wrote much doggerel about “the red wine of the battlefield.” There is, however, no evidence that Adams shares Pearse’s pedophilia.
Although there were continual subterranean rumblings in Ulster backstreets, and even veiled threats from Sinn Fein, the cease-fire was not broken for almost 18 months. It became a personal triumph for John Major (who needed an electoral boost) and even Bill Clinton (who needed a good photo-opportunity). It became easy to depict Unionist fears as scare-mongering and Unionists as paranoiacs, especially as Unionist concerns are often couched in Old Testament-reminiscent language, which strikes a dissonant note in the modern, multicultural, “nonjudgmental” state. Unionists were ignored or derided by assorted IRA supporters and fellow travelers, especially on the left of the Labour Party, who have long secretly applauded the Irish nationalist assault on national unity—just as they support class war, “political correctness,” multiculturalism, and freer immigration. The Labour MP for Woolwich attended the Sinn Fein Annual Conference in Dublin in March, earning censure from Tony Blair, and he is only one of a large minority of far-left Labour MPs and supporters, such as the 31 or so MPs who recently refused to ratify the renewal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. (Liberal Democrats also opposed Michael Howard’s modest proposed increase in police powers to combat terrorism, using the unusual argument—for them—that hasty legislation is bad legislation.)
But Unionists were proven to have been only too well justified when, one night early in February, the Canary Wharf development surrounding London’s tallest building on the Isle of Dogs was shaken by an enormous bomb which left two innocent local workers dead amid the twisted girders. The sense of shock was palpable; reporters were genuinely shocked, as though no one could possibly have dreamed that this would happen. Unionist politicians chivalrously refrained from pointing out that they had told us so. There was a noticeable increase in tension in town the following week, with grim-faced police highly visible on the streets and at airports and train stations.
Then on February 18, a murderer manqué blew himself to pieces (quite an IRA tradition) on the No. 171 bus in Aldwych going from Catford to Holborn, in the middle of one of London’s busiest districts, full of theaters and hotels. Luckily, nobody else was killed, although some were seriously injured, including a man up from Devon with his girlfriend for “a romantic weekend in London” that he had won in a local prize draw. Driving into the city that night for a concert, unaware that there had been another bomb, we were stopped and briefly quizzed by serious-looking City of London officers. About a week later, there was a small, late-night, harmless explosion outside Brompton Cemetery in Kensington, where suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and the philologist, adventurer, and my personal hero George Borrow are both buried. Police speculated that it may have been planted there in order to kill football fans, as it was the same weekend as a Cup Final played at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea’s football ground.
Although there can be no comparison between these small nuisances and the Blitz, the same world-weary but good-humored English attitude is visible in the public reaction to both campaigns. “London can take it!” or “Open for business as usual” was the Londoner’s defiant reply to Goering’s bombers, chalked up on walls or written on crudely lettered signs over shattered shops. The typical reaction to today’s bombings is a goodnatured acceptance of the attendant minor inconveniences, combined with the quiet puzzlement felt by normal people for fanatics, and by Anglo-Saxons for Celts. Well has it been said that the British are at their best in adversity. Although full of ill-import for Ulster, the report of these bombs has had no effect at all on Londoners, who care nothing about the troubles of Ireland at all. It is all just a faint, disquieting echo of an intractable world somewhere out there, a mere rumor of war from the western marches.