The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) explodes a bomb at McGurk’s Bar, an Irish Catholic-owned pub in Belfast, on December 4, 1971, killing fifteen Catholic civilians including two children and wounding seventeen others. This is the highest death toll from a single incident in Belfast during the Troubles. The bombing sparks a series of tit-for-tat bombings and shootings by loyalists and republicans, which help make 1972 the bloodiest year of the conflict.
On the evening of Saturday, December 4, 1971, a four-man UVF team meets in the Shankill area of Belfast and are ordered to bomb a pub on North Queen Street. According to the only convicted bomber, Robert Campbell, they are told not to return until the job is done. Campbell says that their target had not been McGurk’s, but another pub nearby. It is believed this is a pub called The Gem, which is allegedly linked to the Official Irish Republican Army (IRA). The 50-pound bomb is disguised as a brown parcel, which they place in a car and drive to their target. Campbell says they stop near The Gem at about 7:30 PM, but are unable to gain access to it because there are security guards outside. After waiting for almost an hour, they drive a short distance to McGurk’s. At about 8:45 PM, one of them places the bomb in the porch entrance on Great George’s Street and rushes back to the car. It explodes just moments after they drive off. Campbell implies that McGurk’s had been chosen only because it was “the nearest Catholic pub.”
The blast causes the building to collapse. Bystanders immediately rush to free the dead and wounded from the rubble. Firefighters, paramedics, police, and soldiers are quickly on the scene. Fifteen Catholic civilians are killed, including two children, and an additional seventeen are wounded. The rescue effort lasts many hours.
Within two hours of the blast, a sectarian clash erupts nearby at the New Lodge–Tiger’s Bay interface. The British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) move in and a gun battle develops. A British Army officer, Major Jeremy Snow, is shot by the IRA on New Lodge Road and dies of his wounds on December 8. Two RUC officers and five civilians are also wounded by gunfire. Eventually, five companies of troops are sent into the district and they search almost 50 houses.
Meanwhile, the UVF team has driven to a nearby pickup point where they dump their car. They walk to the area of St. Anne’s Cathedral and are picked up by another car. They are driven back to the Shankill area and meet the man who had ordered the attack in an Orange Hall, telling him that “the job has been done.”
Among those killed are Philomena and Maria McGurk, wife and 12-year-old daughter of pub owner Patrick McGurk. Patrick and his three sons are seriously injured. Shortly after the attack, McGurk appears on television calling for no retaliation, “It doesn’t matter who planted the bomb. What’s done can’t be undone. I’ve been trying to keep bitterness out of it.”
In March 1976, the RUC receives intelligence that links UVF member Robert Campbell and four others to the McGurk’s bombing. Campbell is arrested on July 27, 1977 and held at Castlereagh RUC base. He admits his part in the bombing but refuses to name the others.
On July 29, 1977, Campbell is charged with 15 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder. On September 6, 1978, he pleads guilty to all charges and receives life imprisonment with “a recommendation to serve no less than 20 years,” in part for a separate conviction for the murder of a Protestant delivery driver in 1976. He is the only person to have been charged for the bombing. He eventually serves fifteen years in prison and is released on September 9, 1993.