As modern civil conflicts go, that in Northern Ireland has been unusual in the freedom the media there has had from attacks by the contending forces. Apart from a few, exceptional incidents, the various paramilitary organizations have allowed reporters to do their job without threat or hindrance. But that was not the case early in the morning of Sunday, March 4, when a bomb exploded near the headquarters of the BBC in London, sending a huge fireball into the sky, and injuring a passerby.
The bomb, left in a taxi, was said to contain between 10 and 20 pounds of high explosives, which might have been Semtex, once the trademark of IRA explosions. But this attack has been attributed to the so-called Real IRA, the splinter group responsible for the 1998 massacre in Omagh, which killed 29 people, most of them women and children.
The attack is the latest in a series for which that group has been held responsible, including four others in London. So far, fortunately, no one has died as a result of the explosions. But just over a week ago a 14-year-old boy was blinded and lost a hand when he picked up a boob-trapped device near a military base.
The bombing of the BBC represents the most serious attack so far, not only in terms of the quantity of explosives used, but in so far as it represents a direct assault on a fundamental freedom — to report the news without fear of intimidation.
Governments have tried to button the BBC over the years, especially under Margaret Thatcher, who was infuriated by interviews it carried out with leading members of the republican movement.
The BBC, under increasing restrictions and often outright hostility, continued to produce quality reports on Northern Ireland. Ironically, at the time of the RIRA bombing, it had just won another broadcasting award for the three-part series of programs it did on role of the IRA, the loyalist organizations and the security forces in Northern Ireland since 1969.
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There is little enough decent and honest reporting on the North, so it is a doubly vicious blow that would strike at the one organization that since the 1960s has struggled to get news and analysis of what its going on there on the air. It is the tactic of dictators and their thuggish supporters, people who can lay no claim to the mantle of Irish republicanism other than that based on a warped and befuddled notion of recent Irish history. The "Real" in its name refers only to the unfortunate fact of its existence, not to any grasp its members have of the actual world of modern Ireland.
Once more, however, they have served a useful purpose — a reminder of the consequences for the North should the current peace process breakdown.