Protecting politicians at the seaside
AS the party faithful gear up for the annual conference season, Political Editor Graham Dines previews the security measures being put in place.BOURNEMOUTH this year hosts two party conferences – the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives – but security being put in place for them couldn't be more different.
AS the party faithful gear up for the annual conference season, Political Editor Graham Dines previews the security measures being put in place.
BOURNEMOUTH this year hosts two party conferences - the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives - but security being put in place for them couldn't be more different.
The police presence for the Liberal Democrats will be hardly noticeably. The party does not warrant the electronic screening put in place at Labour and Tory gatherings whose delgates have to pass through massive security checks as stringent as those at British airports.
Nobody is immune from the security imposed for Labour and the Tories. Ministers, MPs, delegates, exhibitors, and the media wait patiently in line for their baggage to be searched and x-rayed and then walk through special metal barriers which detect the presence of explosives. Geiger counters are routinely passed over hands in the search for Semtex.
The Lib Dem conferences are laid back, as all of them used to be. But the Brighton bomb changed all that for the Conservatives, when the IRA killed ministers, MPs and wives at the Grand Hotel in 1984 an audacious attempt to assassinate the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Even though their failed, the publicity coup for the IRA was tremendous. To stop a repetition, the authorities ever since have thrown a massive security cordon around Tory conferences. Democracy will not be disrupted by the terrorists and even in opposition, the Tories are still perceived to be a prime terrorist target, although it is highly unlikely it will come from Irish republicans.
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This year, there has been a slight lessening in the precautions. As the Lib Dems and Tories are both holding their conferences in the Bournemouth International Centre, the organisers have got together to implement common telephone and other services for the media.
When Labour won the 1997 General Elections, security was tightened considerably at its conferences. Since the attacks of September 11 2001, attending Labour's week is like being shut off from the rest of the world.
This year, huge concrete and steel barriers designed to prevent car and truck bomb attacks are to be built. The tightest security measures ever seen at the event in Brighton will protect delegates as part of a £2.3 million operation to guard against international terrorism.
More than 1,000 police officers will take part in Operation Otter, the largest of its kind undertaken by Sussex Police. As in 2001, when Labour last visited the city two weeks after September 11, the Brighton Centre and two hotels will become a secure island site, caged in steel fencing and concrete walls.
Armed police will patrol the city while every one of the 16,000 people expected at the five-day event, starting on September 26, will be searched each time they enter the conference.
The new pontoon shaped barriers, made of steel encased in concrete, will be placed at any point around the island site where a car or truck attack could be possible.
The mobile 10ft long and three-foot high barriers, used with concrete wall sections, have been built for similar events up and down the country and were last seen at Labour's Manchester conference earlier in the year.
The barriers have been designed to ensure no vehicle can be driven into island site, either accidentally or on purpose.
The Metropole Hilton Hotel will once again by connected to the Grand Hotel and the Brighton Centre by a purpose built bridge, which will cross Cannon Place. An adjacent multi-storey car park will be shut to the public, while cars using nearby carparks will be searched.
The police will have stop and search powers in the weeks before and during the conference and will be able to close all roads in the city at a moment's notice if a security threat emerges.
An air exclusion zone will be enforced, with the Sussex Police helicopter circling above, but no sea exclusion zone is being used. As for the other political parties, taxpayers' cash being used to fund the security operation.
Only two organisations have so far contacted the police to say they will be marching on the conference. The Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club supporters club are expected to call for a stadium to be built at Falmer, near Brighton, while the Trade Justice Movement will be campaigning for worldwide fair trade.
While the political parties insist on having their showpiece conferences, the bill for keeping them secure will keep on rising.
But with the counter-terrorism services in the UK at full stretch to prevent an outrage on the scale of 9-11, their task would be made much easier if Labour, the Conservatives and Lib Dems got together to decide to all meet in the same venue in succeeding weeks.
Although I question the value of them, and the necessity to hold them every year, they are an integral part of the British political scene. It would take all three parties to agree to axe them - and there seems little likliehood of that happening because above all else, they are big business and highly profitable, especially for the governing party.