1973 Old Bailey bombing
|1973 Old Bailey Bombing|
|Part of the Troubles|
Entrance door to the Old Bailey
|Location||London, United Kingdom|
|Date||8 March 1973 |
|Target||Old Bailey Courthouse|
|Deaths||1 British civilian (heart attack)|
|Perpetrator||Provisional IRA Belfast Brigade|
|Assailants||William Armstrong, Martin Brady, Hugh Feeney, Paul Holmes, Gerry Kelly, William McLarnon, Roisin McNearney, Dolours Price, Marian Price, Robert Walsh, and an Unknown IRA volunteer|
|Convicted||all but McNearney (acquitted for providing information)|
|Verdict||life in prison (later reduced to 20 years)|
The 1973 Old Bailey bombing was a car bomb attack carried out by the Provisional IRA (PIRA) which took place outside the Old Bailey Courthouse on 8 March 1973. The attack was carried out by an 11-person ASU from the Provisional IRA Belfast Brigade. The unit also exploded a second bomb which went off outside the Ministry of Agriculture near Whitehall in London at around the same time the bomb at the Old Bailey went off. This was the Provisional IRA's first major attack on mainland Britain since the Troubles began back in 1969 (not including the 1972 Aldershot bombing, which was carried out by the Official IRA). One British civilian died of a heart attack attributed to the bombing, estimates of the injured range from 180–220 from the two bombings. Two additional bombs were found and defused. Nine people from Belfast were convicted six months later for the bombing, one person managed to escape and one was acquitted for providing information to the police.
The Troubles had been raging for four years in Northern Ireland and to a lesser extent in the Republic of Ireland since the Battle of the Bogside in Derry in August 1969 which brought British troops to Ireland for the first time since 1921. Rioting, protests, gun battles, sniper attacks, bombings and punishment beatings became part of everyday life in many places in Northern Ireland, especially in the poorer working class areas of Belfast and Derry. Ulster had not seen violence like this since the early 1920s. These events and others helped to heighten sectarianism and boosted recruitment into Irish republican and Ulster loyalist paramilitary groups and the security forces; mainly the newly created Ulster Defence Regiment.
Great Britain had been relatively untouched from the violence up until the beginning of 1973, but the IRA Army Council had drawn up plans for a bombing campaign to take place in England some time early in 1973. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, loyalist paramilitaries had bombed Dublin and other parts of the Republic of Ireland a number of times before the PIRA began its bombing campaign in England. These early loyalist bombings were carried out by the Ulster Volunteer Force and were small bombs aimed at destruction only, not injuring or killing anybody. Following the Dublin bombings in late 1972 and in January 1973 carried out by Loyalists which killed three people and injured over 150, the media attention these bombings received helped the Provisional IRA decide to take its campaign to Britain in return. Another reason the IRA brought their campaign to England Billy McKee explained to journalist Peter Taylor was that the IRA had decided to bomb England early if there was an emergency in the IRA and it began to weaken in Ireland. The arrest of top Provisionals in both the Republic and Northern Ireland like Máire Drumm, Seán Mac Stíofáin, Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Martin McGuinness in late 1972  helped to convince the IRA to bomb England to take the heat off of the IRA in Ireland.
Journalist Ed Moloney in his book A Secret History of the IRA has alleged that Gerry Adams was the overall Commander of the IRA's Belfast Brigade at the time and was tasked with selecting the Volunteers who would constitute the active service unit for the England bombing operation, which was scheduled to take place on 8 March 1973, the same day that a border poll – boycotted by Nationalists and Roman Catholics  – was being held in Belfast. The team included 19-year-old Gerry Kelly, 24-year-old Robert "Roy" Walsh (an expert bomb maker from Belfast), Hugh Feeney (a Belfast-born IRA volunteer & explosives expert), and two sisters, Marian, 19, and Dolours Price, 22, from Belfast who were from a staunchly Republican family, along with five other lesser-known volunteers from Belfast: Martin Brady, 22, William Armstrong, 29, Paul Holmes, 19, William McLarnon, 19, and Roisin McNearney, 18. Moloney quoted an IRA source on the recruiting process for the London bombing operation... "Toward the end of 1972 we started working on the plans. The first priority was to recruit unknown Volunteers with no records. It was Adams who went to the three battalions to get them, he told them that the operation was a very big one, that it could be a hanging offence, as it was treason. There was rooms full of Volunteers, and when he said that and anyone who didn't want to go should leave, he was nearly knocked down in the rush. The result was the team ended up with red lights, people like Gerry Kelly who was on the run for murder and others who had been interned."
Boston College tape interview
When interviewed for Boston College for research on the conflict former IRA Volunteer & Belfast brigade Commander Brendan Hughes had the following to say about the Old Bailey operation & the decision to bomb England in general ...
...it was a Belfast Brigade initiative that brought about the London bombings. It was ourselves [the PIRA Belfast Brigade] who planned, organised and recruited for the London bombings . . .the initial idea was discussed at Belfast Brigade meetings with myself, Gerry Adams, Ivor Bell, Pat McClure, Tom Cahill, basically that group of people. We would have been the main people in the Belfast Brigade at the time ... No one dissented. At that particular period, everyone knew we had to step up the war and bring the war to England, and I can’t remember anybody dissenting from that ... Once the decision was made, the next thing was to pick who would go . . . we ordered people from different units within Belfast to come to a call house in the Lower Falls ... Myself and Gerry Adams were there and it was put to these Volunteers that there was a job planned; it was a very dangerous job ... [it] would mean being away from home for a while; [it] would mean being out of Belfast for a while. They were not told that they were going to England [and] after the talk people were invited to either stay or leave. Twelve or so did so [left]. Those who remained were the two Price sisters, Hugh Feeney, Gerry Kelly, Gerry Armstrong and Roy Walsh.It was put forcefully to them that the operation was extremely dangerous, [there was] a possibility of their being killed, arrested and not returning to their homes. Then they were told what the operation was. They were then sent across the border for intensive training in explosives ... weapons and so forth, for about three weeks. Then the cars had to be acquired – there was a special squad put together. Pat McClure was in charge of that, taking them across the border. After that, I had no contact with them because the operation was starting from across the border. I was [Brigade] Operations Officer at that time and once the people were picked, once they were moved across the border, Pat McClure took over ... We didn’t intend to kill people in London. The intention was to strike at the heart of the British Establishment ... if the intention had been to kill people in London, it would have been quite easy to do so, quite simple, but our intentions were not to kill people ... what we should have done was to bury the team in England [afterwards]. When I say ‘bury the team’, we should have arranged hiding places for them there. The mistake we made was to get the bombs in and get the people out as quickly as possible. Unfortunately the British got onto the bombs too quickly and arrested our people coming back. Our idea was a simple one, get the people in, get the explosives in and get our Volunteers out ... It was like that with the bombing campaign in Belfast or Derry or wherever: put the bomb in, run back, always plan your run back. And we went with that simple idea. In hindsight it was obviously the wrong one. [Maybe] if the British hadn't got onto the bombs so quickly it would have been the right idea.
Several days before the bombing, the leaders of the Provisional Irish Republican Army active service unit (ASU), which included sisters Marian and Dolours Price, went to London and picked out four targets: the Old Bailey, the Ministry of Agriculture, an army recruitment office near Whitehall, and New Scotland Yard. They then reported back to their Officer Commanding in Belfast, and the IRA Army Council gave the go ahead. The bombs were made in Ireland and transported to London via ferry, according to Marian Price.
The drivers and the volunteers who were to prime the bombs woke up at 6:00 a.m. and drove the car bombs to their various targets. Gerry Kelly and Roy Walsh drove their car bomb to the Old Bailey. It was planned that by the time the bombs went off at around 15:00, the active service unit would be back in Ireland. The bomb at New Scotland Yard was found at 8:30 by a policeman who noticed a discrepancy in the licence plate. The bomb team started lifting out 5-pound bags of explosives and separated them, so that if the bomb did go off, the force of the explosion would be greatly reduced. The bomb squad eventually found the detonating cord leads, which ran under the front passenger seat of the car; Peter Gurney, a senior member of New Scotland Yard, cut the detonator cord leads, defusing the bomb.
However, at the Old Bailey the bomb exploded, injuring many and causing extensive damage. Scotland Yard stated it had warned the City of London police at 14:01 to search near the Old Bailey for a green Ford Cortina; the car was not located until 14:35 and exploded at 14:49 while police were evacuating the area. A shard of glass from the explosion is preserved as a reminder, embedded in the wall at the top of the main stairs. Several more people were injured by the car bomb near the Ministry of Agriculture, which brought the total number injured to over 200. A British man, 60-year-old Frederick Milton, died of a heart attack. Dolours Price wrote in her memoir: "There were warnings phoned in but people had stood about, curious to see... If people ignored the warnings and stood around gawking, they were stupid. The numbers of injured came about through curiosity and stupidity." The ASU was caught trying to leave the country at Heathrow Airport prior to the explosions, as the police had been forewarned about the bombings and were checking all passengers to Belfast and Dublin. All 10 gave false names that did not match their documents.
Court and sentence
The IRA Volunteers had to be tried at Winchester Crown court as the Old Bailey was wrecked by the car bomb there. The trial took 10 weeks and was set amid extremely strict security. William McLarnon pleaded guilty to all charges on the first day of the trial. On 14 November 1973, a jury convicted six men and two women of the bombings. The jury acquitted Roisin McNearney in exchange for information, and she was given a new identity. As her verdict was handed down, the other defendants began to hum the "Dead March" from Saul, and one threw a coin at her, shouting "Take your blood money with you" as she left the dock in tears. Six of the nine people convicted admitted to Provisional IRA membership.
At the court, the judge sentenced the eight to life imprisonment for the bombings and 20 years for conspiracy, while McLarnon was sentenced to 15 years. As the eight were led to the cells below the court, several gave raised fist salutes to relatives and friends in the public gallery, who shouted "Keep your chins up" and "All the best". The Price sisters immediately went on hunger strike, soon followed by Feeney and Kelly, for the right not to do prison work and to be repatriated to a jail in Ireland. The bombers on hunger strike were eventually moved to jails in Ireland as part of the 1975 IRA truce agreed with the British. In 1983, Kelly escaped from Maze Prison and became part of an IRA ASU in the Netherlands; he was recaptured three years later by the Dutch authorities and extradited.
Further IRA bombs in England
The Old Bailey bomb was the beginning of a sustained bombing campaign in England. The next large bombing by the IRA in England was the King's Cross station and Euston station bombings which injured almost 15 people and did widespread damage. Another large one that year was the 1973 Westminster bombing which injured almost 60 people.
- 1974 Houses of Parliament bombing
- Kings Arms, Woolwich
- Guildford pub bombings
- London Hilton bombing
- M62 coach bombing
- Caterham Arms pub bombing
- 1973 Westminster bombing
- 1974 Tower of London bombing
- CAIN project
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- Peter Taylor, Behind The Mask: The IRA and Sinn Fein
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- November 1972 CAIN
- December 1972 CAIN
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