Bloody Friday (1972)
|Bloody Friday (1972)|
|Part of the Troubles|
|Location||Belfast, Northern Ireland|
|Date||21 July 1972
14:10 – 15:30 (BST)
|Perpetrator||Provisional IRA (Belfast Brigade)|
Bloody Friday is the name given to the bombings by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Belfast on 21 July 1972. Twenty bombs exploded in the space of eighty minutes, killing nine people (including two British soldiers) and injuring 130. The majority of these were car bombs, driven to their detonation sites that same day.
The bombings were partly a response to the breakdown of talks between the IRA and the British government. Since the beginning of its campaign in 1969, the IRA had carried out a concerted bombing campaign against economic, military and political targets in Northern Ireland. It carried out a total of 1,300 bombings in 1972. Bloody Friday was the spur for Operation Motorman, launched by the British Army ten days later.
In late June and early July 1972, a British government delegation led by William Whitelaw held secret talks with the Provisional IRA leadership. As part of the talks, the IRA agreed to a temporary ceasefire beginning on 26 June. The IRA leaders sought a peace settlement that included a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland by 1975 and the release of republican prisoners. However, the British refused and the talks broke down. The ceasefire came to an end on 9 July.
'Bloody Friday' was the IRA's response to the breakdown of the talks. According to the IRA's Chief of Staff, Seán Mac Stíofáin, the main goal of the bombing operation was to wreak financial harm. It was a "message to the British government that the IRA could and would make a commercial desert of the city unless its demands were met". Some also saw it as a reprisal for Bloody Sunday in Derry six months earlier. The attack was carried out by the IRA's Belfast Brigade and the main organiser was Brendan Hughes, the brigade's Officer Commanding. A total of 26 bombs were planted and, in the resulting explosions, eleven people were killed and a further 130 civilians injured, many horrifically mutilated. At the height of the bombing, the middle of Belfast "resembled a city under artillery fire; clouds of suffocating smoke enveloped buildings as one explosion followed another, almost drowning out the hysterical screams of panicked shoppers". Of those injured, 77 were women and children.
The Belfast Brigade claimed responsibility for the bombings and said that it had given warnings to the security forces (through the local media) before the bombs exploded. It said that the press, the Samaritans and the Public Protection Agency "were informed of bomb positions at least 30 minutes to one hour before each explosion". Mac Stíofáin said that "It required only one man with a loud hailer to clear each target area in no time" and alleged that the warnings for the two bombs that claimed lives were deliberately ignored by the British for "strategic policy reasons". The security forces also received hoax warnings, which "added to the chaos in the streets". The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and British Army only effectively cleared a small number of areas before the bombs went off. Furthermore, because of the large number of bombs in the confined area of Belfast city centre, people evacuated from the site of one bomb were mistakenly moved into the vicinity of other bombs.
The accounts of the events that appeared in the first editions of local and national newspapers were, naturally enough, somewhat confused about the details of the events of the day. The timetable below is approximate and given in BST (GMT+1). The details are based on a number of accounts.
- ~2:10 pm (Smithfield Bus Station)
-  A car bomb exploded in an enclosed yard at Smithfield Bus Station, causing extensive damage to the surrounding area.
- ~2:16 pm (Brookvale Hotel)
- A bomb (estimated at 50 pounds (23 kg) of explosive) exploded at the Brookvale Hotel on Brookvale Avenue. The bomb was left in a suitcase by three men armed with sub-machine guns. The area had been cleared and there were no injuries. Some sources give the time of this bombing as 2:36 pm.
- ~2:23 pm (Railway station, York Road)
- A suitcase bomb (estimated at 30 pounds (14 kg) of explosive) exploded on the platform, wrecking the inside of the station and blowing the roof off. Some sources give the time of this bombing as 3:03 pm.
- ~2:45 pm (Crumlin Road)
- A car bomb exploded at the Star Taxis depot on Crumlin Road. Nearby were the houses of the Crumlin Road Prison warders and the prison itself. Some sources say that there were two bombs and that they exploded at 3:25 pm.
- ~2:48 pm (Bus depot, Oxford Street)
- A carbomb exploded outside the Ulsterbus depot on Oxford Street, the busiest bus station in Northern Ireland. An Austin 1100 saloon car loaded with explosives had been driven to the rear of the depot. The blast resulted in the greatest loss of life and the greatest number of casualties. Some of the victims' bodies were torn to pieces by the blast, which led authorities to give an initial estimate of 11 deaths. The area was being cleared but was still crowded when the bomb exploded. Two British Army soldiers, Stephen Cooper (19) and Philip Price (27), were near the bomb when it detonated and were killed outright. Three Protestant civilians who worked for Ulsterbus were killed: William Crothers (15), Thomas Killops (39) and Jackie Gibson (45). One other Protestant Ulsterbus employee, who was a member of the Ulster Defence Association, was also killed in the blast: William Irvine (18). Crothers, Killops and Irvine had been in the vicinity of the car bomb helping to search for the device at the moment it exploded, killing the three men instantly. Bus driver Jackie Gibson was killed after having completed his bus route just minutes before the blast. Almost 40 people suffered injuries. Some sources give the time of this bombing as 3:10 pm.
- ~2:48 pm (Railway station, Great Victoria Street)
- A van bomb exploded in the station's bus yard. Four buses were wrecked and 44 others damaged. The nearby Murray's Tobacco Factory in Sandy Row was also damaged.
- ~2:50 pm (Ulster Bank, Limestone Road)
- A car bomb (estimated at 50 pounds (23 kg) of explosive) exploded outside the Ulster Bank on Limestone Road. The area had not been cleared and there were several injuries. Some sources give the time of this bombing as 2:40 pm.
- ~2:52 pm (Railway station, Botanic Avenue)
- A car bomb (estimated at 50 pounds (23 kg) of explosive) exploded outside the station. There was much damage to property but no serious injuries.
- ~2:55 pm (Queen Elizabeth Bridge)
- A car bomb (estimated at 160 pounds (73 kg) of explosive) exploded on the Queen Elizabeth Bridge. There was some damage to the structure of the bridge.
- ~2:57 pm (Liverpool ferry terminus, Donegall Quay)
- A car bomb (estimated at 50 pounds (23 kg) of explosive) exploded at the Belfast–Liverpool ferry terminus at Donegall Quay. The nearby Liverpool Bar was badly damaged.
- ~2:57 pm (Gas Department offices, Ormeau Avenue)
- A car bomb (estimated at 50 pounds (23 kg) of explosive) exploded outside the offices of the Gas Department, causing extensive damage.
- ~2:59 pm (Garmoyle Street)
- A parcel bomb, which had been planted by armed men, exploded at the premises of John Irwin seed merchants. The building was wrecked.
- ~3:02 pm (Agnes Street)
- A car bomb (estimated at 30 pounds (14 kg) of explosive) exploded outside a group of houses on Agnes Street, a loyalist area off the Shankill Road. Those in the area did not receive a warning but there were no serious injuries.
- ~3:04 pm (M2 motorway bridge, Bellevue)
- A car bomb (estimated at 30 pounds (14 kg) of explosive) partially exploded on the bridge over the M2 motorway at Bellevue in north Belfast. As the bomb only partially detonated, nearby buildings were not damaged.
- ~3:05 pm (Filling station, Upper Lisburn Road)
- A car bomb exploded at Creighton's filling station, setting the petrol pumps ablaze.
- ~3:05 pm (Electricity substation, Salisbury Avenue)
- A car bomb exploded at an electrical substation at the junction of Salisbury Avenue and Hughenden Avenue. The substation and surrounding houses were badly damaged.
- ~3:05 pm (Railway bridge, Finaghy Road North)
- A lorry bomb exploded on a railway bridge at Finaghy Road North.
- ~3:09 (Railway footbridge, Windsor Park)
- A bomb (estimated at 30 pounds (14 kg) of explosive) exploded on a footbridge over the railway at Windsor Park football grounds. Concrete sleepers were blown on to the line, blocking it. Some sources give the time of this bombing as 2:09 pm.
- ~3:12 pm (Eastwood's Garage, Donegall Street)
- A car bomb (estimated at 150 pounds (68 kg) of explosive) destroyed Eastwood's Garage on Donegall Street. There were several injuries.
- ~3:15 pm (Stewartstown Road)
- A bomb, thought to have been abandoned on the Stewartstown Road, exploded but caused no serious injuries.
- ~3:15 pm (Cavehill Road)
- A car bomb (estimated at 50 pounds (23 kg) of explosive) exploded outside a row of single storey shops near the top of Cavehill Road, north Belfast. The shops were in a religiously-mixed residential area. Those in the area had not received the bomb warning. Two women and a man died in this blast. Margaret O'Hare (37), a Catholic mother of seven children, died in her car. Her 11-year-old daughter was with her in her car and was badly injured. Catholic Brigid Murray (65) and Protestant teenager Stephen Parker (14) were also killed. Many others were seriously injured. Stephen Parker's father, the Rev. Joseph Parker, was only able to identify his son's body at the mortuary by the box of trick matches in his pocket, and the shirt and scout belt he had been wearing. Some sources give the time of this bombing as 3:20 pm.
- ~3:25 pm (Railway line near Lisburn Road)
- A bomb exploded on the railway line near the Lisburn Road.
- ~3:30 pm (Grosvenor Road)
- A bomb (estimated at 50 pounds (23 kg) of explosive) exploded at the Northern Ireland Carriers depot on Grosvenor Road. There were no serious injuries.
Reactions and consequences
According to former RUC officer Jack Dale a large group of people in the republican Markets area had "jeered and shouted and yelled" as if each explosion was "a good thing".
Speaking in the House of Commons on 24 July, Home Secretary William Whitelaw called the bombings "appallingly bloodthirsty". He also drew attention to the Catholic victims, and mentioned the revulsion in the Republic of Ireland and elsewhere. Leader of the Opposition Harold Wilson described the events as "a shocking crime against an already innocent population". The Irish Times wrote, "The chief injury is not to the British Army, to the Establishment or to big business but to the plain people of Belfast and Ireland. Anyone who supports violence from any side after yesterday's events is sick with the same affliction as those who did the deed." Television images of fire-fighters shovelling body parts into plastic bags at the Oxford Street bus station were the most shocking of the day.
Twenty-five years later, a police officer who had been at Oxford Street bus station described to journalist Peter Taylor the scene he came upon in the wake of the bombing:
"The first thing that caught my eye was a torso of a human being lying in the middle of the street. It was recognisable as a torso because the clothes had been blown off and you could actually see parts of the human anatomy. One of the victims was a soldier I knew personally. He'd had his arms and legs blown off and some of his body had been blown through the railings. One of the most horrendous memories for me was seeing a head stuck to the wall. A couple of days later, we found vertebrae and a rib cage on the roof of a nearby building. The reason we found it was because the seagulls were diving onto it. I've tried to put it at the back of my mind for twenty-five years."
In 1972, 479 people died in the Troubles, more than in any other year of the conflict. Ten days after the bombings the British Army launched Operation Motorman, to retake IRA-controlled areas in Belfast and Derry. There were also several revenge attacks by loyalists.
The City of Belfast Youth Orchestra set up a Stephen Parker Memorial Trust in memory of teenager Stephen Parker, who had been a music student and played the French Horn in the orchestra at the time he was killed. Stephen had also been posthumously awarded the Queen's Commendation for bravery as he had died while trying to warn others about the car bomb left outside the row of shops on Cavehill Road.
Irish republican reaction
For the IRA, and the Belfast Brigade in particular, it was "an operation gone awry". Brendan Hughes, Officer Commanding of the IRA's Belfast Brigade, viewed the attack as a disaster. He described his reaction in an interview organised by Boston College:
"I was the operational commander of the 'Bloody Friday' operation. I remember when the bombs started to go off, I was in Leeson Street, and I thought, 'There's too much here'. I sort of knew that there were going to be casualties, either [because] the Brits could not handle so many bombs or they would allow some to go off because it suited them to have casualties. I feel a bit guilty about it because, as I say, there was no intention to kill anyone that day. I have a fair deal of regret that 'Bloody Friday' took place ... a great deal of regret ... If I could do it over again I wouldn't do it."
Sunday 21 July marks the 30th anniversary of an IRA operation in Belfast in 1972 which resulted in nine people being killed and many more injured.
While it was not our intention to injure or kill non-combatants, the reality is that on this and on a number of other occasions, that was the consequence of our actions.
It is therefore appropriate on the anniversary of this tragic event, that we address all of the deaths and injuries of non-combatants caused by us.
We offer our sincere apologies and condolences to their families.
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- Northern Ireland Office news-sheet about the bombings