The day the IRA bombed my office

The Baltic Exchange war memorial stained glass: NMM, Brian Mawdsley

Walking around the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich on Saturday, I was transported back in time by the sight of this stained glass display. It reminded me of the day the Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombed my office in London 30 years ago this week.

The glass was part of the Baltic Exchange’s memorial to 60 members of the exchange who were killed in the Great War. The exchange building in St Mary Axe took the brunt of the explosion and was later demolished; the Gherkin now stands on the site. My office, a short walk along St Mary Axe, was badly damaged. I never worked there again.

I walked past the Baltic Exchange every day from 1990 to 1992 on my way to my office. I seem to remember a doorman stationed at the entrance, and metal gates used to block the entrance when it was closed. Or is my memory playing tricks?

The bombing took place on a Friday evening, the day after the 1992 general election in which John Major’s Conservative party won a surprise victory. Tragically, three people died.

My damaged office: 60 St Mary Axe, April 1992

I took this photo of my office, the headquarters of Eagle Star insurance, a few days after the bombing. Exactly a week before the explosion I was working late, faxing a draft speech to a colleague. The fax machine was next to the big glass window above the entrance, which shattered in the blast. I often wondered what would have happened to me had the IRA attacked a week earlier.

My sister in St Mary Axe, April 1992

The week after the blast, my sister Bev Wildeboer was in London and we visited the City of London to see the impact of the explosion. You can see from the photo above that the authorities closed the stretch of St Mary Axe that passed the Baltic Exchange. In the distance, you can see an office tower with almost all its windows broken. That was the HQ of Commercial Union insurance, which later became Aviva.

Shattered: the Commercial Union building after the IRA attack

Walking around the City, it was curious to see some buildings near the Baltic Exchange were relatively untouched, while others a few blocks away had their windows broken.

We quickly moved into another Eagle Star office next to Aldgate tube station. That office was empty as the company’s general insurance business had just relocated to Bishops Cleeve, Cheltenham.

Almost exactly a year later, the IRA struck the City of London again. It set off a massive bomb in Bishopsgate. The Commercial Union building, which had just been rebuilt, was devastated again. The medieval church of St Ethelburga’s was almost destroyed – terrorists had done more damage to this exquisite church than the great fire of London and the wartime blitz.

Happily St Ethelburga’s was later restored as a centre for reconciliation and peace. That seems a fitting theme on which to end this blogpost. The 1993 City bombing was far from the last atrocity in the Troubles, but efforts were already under way to bring the conflict to an end. After a shortly lived ceasefire in 1994-6, the IRA and loyalist terror groups announced ceasefires in 1997 that paved the way to an uneasy peace, broken at times by atrocities committed by dissident groups, most tragically at Omagh in 1998.

Years later, in 2013, I spoke to Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Féin, at the official opening of PayPal’s office at Dundalk in the Republic of Ireland. Adams was long rumoured to have been an influential member of the IRA, although he has always denied membership. Despite my experience in 1992 I had no qualms about speaking to Adams, who was present as a local TD (member of the Irish parliament, the Dáil. I remember raising the topic of onions, of all things. It wasn’t such an unlikely topic: the building was on the site of an onion farm. I reminisced about seeing French onion sellers in Cardiff on international rugby days.

Belfast, 2019

Britain and Ireland are very different places today, although Brexit has cast a long shadow. It’s impossible to imagine taking a tour of the Falls Road, Belfast in 1992. Yet that is what Owen and I did in 2019. We took a black cab tour and Owen got a hint of those tragic years of conflict, death and destruction. Whatever Gerry Adams did during the Troubles, it took courage for him, John Hume, David Trimble and countless others to forge a better, peaceful future. It seemed an impossible dream as I looked at my shattered office in April 1992.

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