DISSIDENT IRA bomb at Belfast airport raises hard questions for Northern Ireland

Thursday, August 2nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ The bombers had no trouble reaching their target, parking their explosives-packed car and getting away. Thanks to the Northern Ireland peace process, Belfast International Airport these days is wide open for tourists and terrorists alike.

It took several confused phone calls and a nine-hour search for police to find the car bomb Wednesday amid several thousand vehicles. As takeoffs and landings continued on schedule, British army experts defused the 45 pounds of explosives with two blasts from a remote-controlled robot. A dissident Irish Republican Army group, the Real IRA, claimed responsibility.

Though no one was hurt, the episode raises tough questions for Northern Ireland at a critical moment for the country's 1998 peace accord. It came on the same day Britain published new commitments to close more bases, withdraw more troops, end helicopter patrols _ all in hope of spurring IRA disarmament.

Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party, contends Catholic support for dissident IRA violence will disappear once Britain slashes its military garrison and reforms the mostly Protestant police. Other politicians, mostly Protestants, say Britain has already compromised Northern Ireland's defenses.

``The fact that terrorists can drive a car bomb uncontested into our most important airport demonstrates that the IRA must disarm and that our security forces need to stay strong until they do,'' said David Burnside, a Protestant lawmaker from the Ulster Unionist Party, whose district includes the airport.

Those with a business stake in the airport want security, but not at the expense of frightening visitors.

``More visible security would be intimidating and worrying for passengers, and alienate some of the new carriers,'' said Calum MacLaghlan, manager of the four-star Fitzwilliam hotel, less than 200 yards from the car bomb. ``We don't need to take a step back years in time because of one isolated event. That's exactly what the terrorists would want.''

In the recent past, Belfast International had only one entrance, where gun-toting officers checked drivers' licenses and looked in back seats and cargo compartments. Suspicious vehicles were taken in a search hut.

The old system worked: No car bomb got through during the IRA's 27-year campaign.

When the IRA called the first of its lengthy cease-fires in 1994, the airport was among the first places to declare peace. The security huts closed, the speed bumps disappeared _ and business boomed.

The airport's ``international'' tag appeared ridiculous in the days when the runway largely served two domestic airlines and the military. Today, $30 million in investment has brought a gleaming new terminal offering service on a dozen-plus carriers to Boston, Brussels and scores of other European and North American destinations.

``We lost bookings because of the bomb,'' MacLachlan said. ``We could stand to lose more if we saw a security overreaction.''

Summertime means the airport's long-term parking lots are jammed with cars sitting for weeks at a time. That suited the bombers. They stole the Volvo in Belfast in June and fitted it with fake license plates.

The dissidents _ who committed Northern Ireland's deadliest terrorist strike in 1998, killing 29 people with a car bomb in Omagh _ phoned a Belfast newspaper about 4:50 a.m. Wednesday. According to police, that warning said a bomb was somewhere outside the airport and would detonate at 5:30 a.m., shortly before the day's first scheduled flights. The caller used a recognized Real IRA code word.

When no explosion followed, the security forces presumed it was a hoax. Next, a Real IRA caller phoned a Catholic priest at 8 a.m., saying the bomb was still there. Police still couldn't find it. The priest called a confidante who, in turn, got the Real IRA caller to phone again around 1 p.m. to specify the Volvo.