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Frightful words no one wants to hear IRA speaks in code when it warns press of bombs, attacks


LONDON -- It's the telephone call that can freeze an entire news room: The Irish Republican Army is on the line.

But how is a journalist supposed to know it's really the IRA?

The caller utters a recognized code, known to media and police. It confirms that the IRA is going to do something terrifying, or take responsibility for something that's already happened.

The IRA holds no press conferences.

Its unique form of terrorist confirmation was put into play again after Monday's double car bomb attack on Northern Ireland's most heavily secured area, the British army headquarters in Lisburn. The attack injured 34 people and terrorized a population that had grown accustomed to peace.

Discovering who engineered the bombing was vital, for if the IRA claimed responsibility, it would signal the bombing campaign was on again in Northern Ireland.

On Tuesday, two groups claiming credit for the attack contacted RTE, Ireland's national broadcasting network. The first caller, from a shadowy terror organization, didn't utter the code. The caller from the IRA did.

That was confirmation that Northern Ireland's so-called peace process was all but shattered.

The incident illustrates the complexity of dealing with terrorist pronouncements. RTE broadcast both claims, an error the network news director says should never be repeated.

"It opens up a whole can of worms," says Joe Mulholland, the RTE news director. "It opens up the possibility of any idiot ringing in and taking responsibility."

Over the long course of the Northern Ireland "troubles," which have claimed more than 3,200 lives since 1969, a communications system has been created by both Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups.

There are calls with code words. And there are written pronouncements issued with pseudonyms, like P. O'Neill for the IRA, and Captain Black for the Protestant paramilitaries.

The system is designed to cut out the hoaxes, as the terrorists seek to show they are mounting war-like campaigns. It may not be perfect, but news media and police say that they are usually able to separate the genuine from the fraudulent.

In the past the code often changed, although not recently. How would the media or police know the code had changed? They'd get a call with a new code saying something awful would happen, and if it happened, they'd know the code had changed.

"We can't be meeting with these people to work out a code word, sitting down in a pub and say, 'Right, let's agree on a new code word,' " Mulholland says.

Sometimes, the calls are used to take responsibility for incidents. They also are used by terrorists to warn of impending blasts.

The terrorists time the call very closely to the blast, because they don't want to give bomb disposal teams enough time to hunt down the device.

In June, after a phoned warning, police tried desperately to find a bomb in Manchester in northwest England, but the device exploded, injuring 200 and devastating the city's shopping district.

"They ring up and say, 'It's the IRA, the code word is such and such, a bomb has been placed at such and such a street,' " says Brendan Anderson, a reporter for the Belfast Irish News who has received three such warning calls.

"You go great guns to get the information down and get it to the police," he says. "It's quite terrifying."

Mulholland remains shaken by a call made Feb. 9, when the IRA contacted RTE 30 minutes before the 6 p.m. newscast to announce that a 17-month cease-fire was over. The caller provided the recognized code, but it had been so long since the network had received such a call and the news was so important, the news desk felt it should be double checked.

"This was so unexpected and horrendous we held back from broadcasting it," Mulholland says.

Several minutes into the broadcast, the IRA contacted the network again, and asked why the announcement hadn't been aired.

"We tried to confirm it in other ways by calling people," Mulholland says. "We waited until 5 minutes of 7, almost when our news program was coming off-air, when one of our journalists said, 'Yeah, this is genuine.' "

And genuine it was.

RTE went with the story. A few minutes later, a blast rocked a London business district, killing two, injuring scores and causing millions of dollars in damage.

"I had one of the most angst-ridden experiences in my time in broadcasting," Mulholland says. "I was extremely conscious that if we were not to broadcast this and it were true, then we were going to come under severe criticism. If we were to broadcast it and it was untrue, we would not have lived down the ignominy of that. It was a difficult moment."

Pub Date: 10/11/96

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