Letter to Jack Straw – Call for Public Enquiry after Soho bombing

The Rt. Hon. Jack Straw, MP,
Home Secretary.

14th May, 1999.

I am writing on behalf of the lesbian and gay human rights group OutRage! to call for a public inquiry into the police failure to warn the lesbian and gay population that Old Compton Street and other gay districts were potential bomb targets.

Some gay businesses in Old Compton Street, and one gay organisation (Stonewall), were alerted. But there was no general warning to the wider lesbian and gay population. They had a right to know that their community was at risk, and the police were wrong to not make them aware of that danger.

A public inquiry is needed to ensure that the policing mistakes in the days leading up to the Soho bomb are identified, and that remedial action is taken to ensure they are not repeated in the future.

The police response after the Soho bombing was, in our view, praiseworthy. It does, however, need to recognised that their failure to forewarn the homosexual public that gay venues could be attacked was a serious and tragic misjudgement. This failure is a legitimate and necessary subject for a public enquiry.

Soon after the Brixton bomb, and most definitely following the Brick Lane explosion, officers suspected that right-wing extremists were behind the blast — and they admitted publicly this likely far-right connection.

From past experience, the police were aware that these neo-Nazi groups do not confine their hatred and violence to racial minorities. As well as being racist and anti-Semitic, they are also notoriously homophobic. It was obvious to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the far right that the gay community was a potential bomb target. Nevertheless, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon, and other senior officers, continued to publicly promote –without any proof– a solely-racist motive for the bombings.

In addition to the easily-arrived-at deduction that the bomber was likely to be homophobic as well as racist, there is cast-iron proof that, about a week before the Soho bomb exploded, officers on the case suspected that Old Compton Street might be a target. We know this because police were dispatched to alert gay businesses in Old Compton Street from Monday, 26th April, which suggests that the decision to warn these businesses was probably taken the Friday before or earlier.

There is further concrete evidence that the police feared the lesbian and gay community could be targeted. The gay rights group, Stonewall, was posted a police warning dated Tuesday, 27th April, but this letter did not arrive until Friday, 30th April, (the day of the bombing). Since the police had serious concerns about the lesbian and gay community being attacked, why was this warning not phoned, faxed or couriered to Stonewall, and to other gay rights organisations? Who made the decision to send the warning by second class post? These questions require answers.

It was also a grave mistake for the police not use their own community consultation structures to alert the most obvious and important gay groups: those that are involved in police liaison, through the London Lesbian & Gay Policing Initiative (LLGPI). None of these organisations received any warning about the bomb danger.

For nearly two years, the LLPGI has been urging the police to set up a data base of lesbian and gay groups in London, to ensure swift communication with the homosexual community in the event of an emergency, such as the recent bombing campaign. This recommendation was also made by OutRage! six years ago, after the delayed police warning to the gay community when serial killer, Colin Ireland, was on the rampage.

During the recent bombings, the failure of the police to establish this data base meant that, even if they had decided to alert all lesbian and gay groups that gay venues might be targeted, officers had no way of disseminating their fears to these groups.

The most serious police misjudgement was, by far, the decision to warn some gay bars, but not the wider gay public. This lulled many lesbians and gay men into a false sense of security. Because the police did not issue a public alert about the possibility of gay venues being bombed, most homosexuals did not take the threat seriously. They heard Sir Paul Condon suggesting an exclusively racist motive for the bombings, and assumed that the gay community was not at risk.

As soon as his officers realised tbat the lesbian and gay community was a potential target –which was Tuesday, 27th April at the latest and probably several days earlier– the Metropolitan Police Commissioner should have gone on national television to advise the homosexual population that gay areas and venues were at risk. He should have also announced publicly that Old Compton Street and other gay districts were under heavy police surveillance. This might have deterred the bomber. On hearing of the police surveillance of gay districts, he may have concluded there was a risk of detection and abandoned his plans. London and the gay community could, perhaps, have been spared the carnage of Friday, 30th April.

I hope you will agree that police decison-making in the run-up to the Soho bomb blast was flawed, and that in the interests of avoiding any repetition of those errors of judgement there needs to be a full and independent public enquiry.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Tatchell.