The Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) explodes two bombs at London mainline stations on February 18, 1991, one at Victoria station and the other at Paddington station, killing one person and injuring 38 others all at Victoria station. It is the IRA’s second major attack in London in February 1991 after the Downing Street mortar attack eleven days earlier which is an attempt to wipe out the British war cabinet and British prime minister John Major. It is also the first IRA attack on civilians since the 1983 Harrods bombing, marking a strategic change in their bombing campaign.
The Paddington bomb, which goes off at 4:20 AM, is much smaller than the second bomb at Victoria and is designed to make sure the security services will take the Victoria bomb seriously and not as a hoax. There are no deaths or injuries at Paddington but the roof is badly damaged.
Some time before 7:00 AM, a caller with an Irish accent says, “We are the Irish Republican Army. Bombs to go off in all mainline stations in 45 minutes.” The Victoria station bomb, which is hidden in a rubbish bin inside the station, goes off at 7:40 AM. Despite a 45-minute warning and the Paddington bomb three hours earlier, the security services are slow to act. The bomb kills one person instantly and injures 38 others from flying glass and other debris. This is the worst attack suffered by civilians in England by the IRA since the 1983 Harrods bombing which killed three policemen, three civilians and injured 50 people. All London’s rail terminals are closed, disrupting the journeys of almost half a million commuters and bringing chaos to London, which is the IRA’s intended goal. There is also a hoax call made to Heathrow Airport, causing the airport’s closure.
That night the Provisional IRA claims responsibility for the bombings but blames the British police for the casualties. A statement from the Provisional IRA GHQ says, “The cynical decision of senior security personnel not to evacuate railway stations named in secondary warnings, even three hours after the warning device had exploded at Paddington in the early hours of this morning was directly responsible for the casualties at Victoria.” The statement goes on, “All future warnings should be acted upon.” The main purpose of the bombings in the overall IRA strategy is to keep pressure up on John Major, his Government and to make sure he acts on the Irish Troubles.
Police defend the decision not to close all stations after receiving warning that bombs had been planted. Commander George Churchill-Coleman, head of Scotland Yard‘s anti-terrorist squad, says that dozens of hoax calls are received every day. “It is very easy with hindsight to be critical.” Churchill-Coleman also says that the bomb was “quite deliberately intended to maim and kill.”
A year later, a French TV crew interviews an IRA Commander who says he speaks on behalf of the IRA’s GHQ Staff. The commander of the unit says of the Victoria station bombing that warnings were given by telephone naming nine railroad stations in London and that a 50-minute warning was given. He goes on to say that the attack was not aimed at hurting anybody but to disrupt the British transport system.
This bombing marks the IRA’s shift to targeting civilian areas following the July 1990 London Stock Exchange bombing. It is also the first IRA attack on the London transport system since 1976. The IRA keeps bombing targets in England for the remainder of the year.
(Pictured: London Victoria Station – The main station building for this terminus, with trains servicing the south and south-eastern destinations, as well as Gatwick. In front is the bus station.)