This was not just an attack on the English capital but a direct assault on the seat of the British government and on democracy itself. In that sense, it shares similarities with the Brighton bombing of 1984 when the Provisional IRA attempted to wipe out Margaret Thatcher’s government. One of her cabinet ministers, Norman Tebbit, was seriously injured in the attack on the Grand Hotel where the Conservative Party was holding its annual conference. Mr Tebbit’s wife, Margaret, was left paralysed.
The Provos made another attempt in 1991, targeting the Downing Street home of the then prime minister John Major in a mortar attack. Luckily, nobody was seriously hurt.
While the IRA has supposedly gone away in the wake of the Good Friday agreement, Islamic terrorists continue to remind us of the need for constant vigilance. Yesterday’s attack comes a year after terror reigned in Brussels when, on the morning of March 22, 2016, three co-ordinated suicide bombings occurred: Two at Brussels Airport and one at Maalbeek metro station in the city centre.
The anniversary of those attacks dominated Belgian media yesterday. Le Soir, a leading daily newspaper, referred to “that day in March where we lost our innocence”. London and Westminster lost their innocence a long time ago, from the 1605 attempt to blow up the House of Lords, to the Blitz of the Second World War, and, more recently, the 2005 London bombings.
London and its inhabitants are resilient but they face danger every day and the current threat level for international terrorism in the UK is severe, meaning an attack is highly likely. There is only one level above severe: critical, which means an attack is expected imminently.
British security services have foiled 13 potential attacks within the last four years, while counter-terrorism units are running more than 500 investigations at any time.
The attack came within hours of the announcement that airline passengers travelling to the UK from six countries in the Middle East and North Africa are to be banned from carrying laptops and other large electronic devices as cabin luggage. It follows a similar measure announced by the US authorities affecting flights originating in eight mainly Muslim countries.
Any danger of attack on the institutions we hold dear prompts us to adopt the motto of the Scouts movement: Be prepared. Belgium Prime Minister Charles Michel yesterday called for European countries to do a better job co-ordinating their counterterrorism surveillance. “Some politicians were probably too lax about the rise of an extremist, fundamentalist, radical ideology,” he said. “That was a lesson for European democracy.”
We in Ireland have escaped so far from the latest attacks on European cities, but we must not become complacent.