On February 28, 1985, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) launches a heavy mortar attack on the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) base at Corry Square in Newry, County Down, Northern Ireland. The attack kills nine RUC officers and injures almost 40 others, the highest death toll ever suffered by the RUC. Afterwards, a major building scheme is begun to give police and military bases better protection from such attacks.
In the early 1970s, after the onset of the Troubles, the Provisional IRA launches a campaign aimed at forcing the British to withdraw from Northern Ireland.
The IRA, particularly its South Armagh Brigade, has repeatedly attacked the British Army and RUC with home-made mortars, but with limited success. Between 1973 and early 1978 a total of 71 mortar attacks are recorded, but none cause direct British Army or RUC deaths. There are only two deadly mortar attacks before 1985. The first is on March 19, 1979, when Private Peter Woolmore of the Queen’s Regiment is killed in a mortar attack on Newtownhamilton British Army base. The second is on November 12, 1983, when a RUC officer is killed and several hurt in a mortar attack on Carrickmore RUC base.
The attack is jointly planned by members of the South Armagh Brigade and an IRA unit in Newry. The homemade mortar launcher, dubbed the ‘Mark 10,’ is bolted onto the back of a Ford lorry that had been hijacked in Crossmaglen.
Shortly after 6:30 PM on February 28, nine shells are launched from the lorry, which had been parked on Monaghan Street, about 250 yards from the base. At least one 50-lb. shell lands on a portacabin containing a canteen, where many officers are having their evening tea break. Nine police officers are killed and 37 people are hurt, including 25 civilian police employees, the highest death toll inflicted on the RUC in its history. The nine dead officers range in age from 19 to 41, seven male and two female, seven Protestants and two Catholics. Another shell hits the observation tower, while the rest land inside and outside the perimeter of the base.
The day is dubbed “Bloody Thursday” by the British press. British prime minister Margaret Thatcher calls the attack “barbaric,” while Ireland’s Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, says it is “cruel and cynical,” and pledges the help of the Irish security forces to catch those responsible. Although not involved in the attack, Newry IRA member Eamon Collins is arrested shortly afterwards and interrogated. After five days of questioning, Collins breaks under interrogation and turns supergrass, leading to more than a dozen arrests of other IRA members. The attack prompts calls from unionist politicians to “increase security,” and the British government launches a multi-million pound programme of construction to protect bases from similar attacks. This involves installing reinforced roofs and building blast-deflecting walls around the base of buildings.
After the successful attack in Newry, the IRA carries out a further nine mortar attacks in 1985. On September 4, an RUC training centre in Enniskillen is attacked. Thirty cadets narrowly escape death due to poor intelligence-gathering by the IRA unit responsible. The cadets are expected to be in bed sleeping, but are instead eating breakfast when the bombs land. In November 1986, the IRA launches another attack on the RUC base in Newry, but the bombs fall short of their target and land on houses. A four-year-old Catholic girl is badly wounded and another 38 people are hurt, prompting the IRA to admit that “this incident left us open to justified criticism.”
Beginning in the 1990s, operations at the Corry Square base are progressively shifted to a new facility on the outskirts of Newry. The base is closed in 2002, and a park occupies the site today.
(Pictured: Destroyed cars and remains of the Newry RUC Corry Square police Station in Catherine Street taken the day after the attack by the Provisional IRA using homemade mortar bombs)