Thursday, May 20, 2004

You've got to give it to those British, they sure do know how to protest (from the New York Times)...

Protesters Hit Blair With Flour in Parliament

Published: May 20, 2004

ONDON, May 19 - Prime Minister Tony Blair was pelted on the back by a ball of purple flour on Wednesday in the House of Commons, an episode that raised serious questions about security in Westminster.

The attack led to a 70-minute evacuation of Parliament. The flour, which was stuffed inside two condoms, was found to be harmless.

Two men, Ron Davis and Guy Harrison, who are members of Fathers 4 Justice, a group known for using publicity stunts to push for the rights of divorced fathers, were arrested.

The two men had been sitting in a special guest area of the House of Commons gallery, when Mr. Davis rushed to the railing and lobbed the flour-filled condoms, which sent plumes of purple powder into the air. Mr. Harrison, standing next to him, held up a poster.

The men had spent a total of £700, or about $1,237, to buy tickets for the guest area at a charity auction about two months ago, said Graham Manson, a spokesman for the group. The men had been vouched for by Lady Golding, who later apologized.

The special guest area is not secured by the temporary plexiglass barrier that was recently erected around the public gallery to protect members of Parliament from just such an attack.

Mr. Blair, who was in the middle of a raucous exchange during the weekly prime minister's questions session, initially appeared oblivious to the flour bomb. As the purple powder floated in the air and the two men in the gallery began to shout, a few House members sprang to their feet and gazed up with startled looks. At that point, Mr. Blair noticed the commotion and was quickly ushered out of the room. A circle of purple powder was visible on his back.

A spokeswoman for the prime minister's office said Mr. Blair was unfazed and had asked to return to the question and answer session, but it had already been suspended.

Scotland Yard's antiterrorist branch has been asked to investigate.

Calling the incident serious, the leader of the House of Commons, Peter Hain, said he asked for an immediate report on the attack and any security lapses. Mr. Hain had recommended the installation of the screen, warning at the time that someone could easily release deadly agents into the chamber.

For now, the privilege of allowing lawmakers to invite special guests who sit in a separate, unrestricted area has been suspended.

While no one was hurt in the incident, members of Parliament and other politicians said it revealed distressing failures of both security and procedures for handling an attack.

It was also just one of several security breaches in the past year. Last year, a Daily Mirror reporter wrangled a job as a footman at Buckingham Palace during President Bush's state visit. He later wrote about his time in the palace.

Earlier this week, a man posing as a police officer penetrated several layers of security and got inside Windsor Castle.

Responding to Wednesday's incident, Home Secretary David Blunkett ordered that a security review, which was already under way, be speeded up, and he said that one outcome of Wednesday's incident would be less public access to the House of Commons.

Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, said he was appalled at how the incident was handled, adding that had it been a chemical or biological agent, it would have been spread all over London as lawmakers evacuated the site.

"What we did today was categorically the opposite of what should have happened," he said. "With a threat like this, you should seal the doors completely."

But Mr. Blunkett, speaking to BBC's Radio 4, said it was clear that the substance was not hazardous at the time the decision was made to clear the House of Commons.

In a statement, Fathers 4 Justice said the powder attack was "the first in a series of planned protests" before its main Father's Day demonstration on June 18.

"Fathers 4 Justice say that M.P.'s are fully aware that every day 100 children lose contact with their fathers in the family courts and that Parliament has failed children, failed fathers and failed families," the statement said.

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