seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Balcombe Street Siege Ends

balcombe-street-siegeThe six-day Balcombe Street siege in London ends peacefully on December 12, 1975 after four Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) gunmen free their two hostages and give themselves up to the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS).

In 1974 and 1975, London is subjected to a 14-month campaign of gun and bomb attacks by the Provisional IRA. Some 40 bombs explode in London, killing 35 people and injuring many more. The four members of what becomes known as the “Balcombe Street gang,” Joe O’Connell, Edward Butler, Harry Duggan and Hugh Doherty, are part of a six-man IRA Active Service Unit (ASU) that also includes Brendan Dowd and Liam Quinn.

The Balcombe Street siege starts after a chase through London, as the MPS pursues Doherty, O’Connell, Butler and Duggan through the streets after they had fired gunshots through the window of Scott’s restaurant in Mount Street, Mayfair. The four IRA men ultimately run into a block of council flats in Balcombe Street, adjacent to Marylebone station, triggering the six-day standoff.

The four men go to 22b Balcombe Street in Marylebone, taking its two residents, middle-aged married couple John and Sheila Matthews, hostage in their front room. The men declare that they are members of the IRA and demand a plane to fly both them and their hostages to Ireland. Scotland Yard refuses, creating a six-day standoff between the men and the police. Peter Imbert, later Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, is the chief police negotiator.

The men surrender after several days of intense negotiations between Metropolitan Police Bomb squad officers, Detective Superintendent Peter Imbert and Detective Chief Superintendent Jim Nevill, and the unit’s leader Joe O’Connell, who goes by the name of “Tom.” The other members of the gang are named “Mick” and “Paddy,” thereby avoiding revealing to the negotiators precisely how many of them are in the living room of the flat. The resolution of the siege is a result of the combined psychological pressure exerted on the gang by Imbert and the deprivation tactics used on the four men. The officers also use carefully crafted misinformation, through the BBC Radio news to further destabilise the gang into surrender. A news broadcast states that the British Special Air Service are going to be sent in to storm the building and release the hostages. This seems to deter the gang and they eventually give themselves up to the police.

The four are found guilty at their Old Bailey trial in 1977 of seven murders, conspiring to cause explosions, and falsely imprisoning John and Sheila Matthews during the siege. O’Connell, Butler and Duggan each receive 12 life sentences, and Doherty receives 11. Each of the men is later given a whole life tariff, the only IRA prisoners to receive this tariff. During the trial they instruct their lawyers to “draw attention to the fact that four totally innocent people were serving massive sentences” for three bombings in Woolwich and Guildford. Despite telling the police that they are responsible, they are never charged with these offences and the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven remain in prison for 15 more years, until it is ruled that their convictions are unsafe.

After serving 23 years in English prisons, the four men are transferred to the high security wing of Portlaoise Prison, County Laois, in early 1998. They are presented by Gerry Adams to the 1998 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis as “our Nelson Mandelas,” and are released together with Brendan Dowd and Liam Quinn in 1999 as part of the Good Friday Agreement.


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The M62 Coach Bombing

m62-coach-bombingThe M62 coach bombing occurs on February 4, 1974 on the M62 motorway in Northern England, when a Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) bomb explodes in a coach carrying off-duty British Armed Forces personnel and their family members. Twelve people, nine soldiers and three civilians, are killed by the bomb, which consists of 25 pounds of high explosive hidden in a luggage locker on the coach.

The coach has been specially commissioned to carry British Army and Royal Air Force personnel on leave with their families from and to the bases at Catterick and Darlington during a period of railway strike action. The vehicle departs from Manchester and is making good progress along the motorway. Shortly after midnight, when the bus is between junction 26 and 27, near Oakwell Hall, there is a large explosion on board. Most of those aboard are sleeping at the time. The blast, which can be heard several miles away, reduces the coach to a “tangle of twisted metal” and throws body parts up to 250 yards.

The explosion kills eleven people outright and wounds over fifty others, one of whom dies four days later. Amongst the dead are nine soldiers – two from the Royal Artillery, three from the Royal Corps of Signals, and four from the 2nd battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. One of the latter is Corporal Clifford Haughton, whose entire family, consisting of his wife Linda and his sons Lee (5) and Robert (2), also die. Numerous others suffer severe injuries, including a six-year-old boy, who is badly burned.

The driver of the coach, Roland Handley, is injured by flying glass, but is hailed as a hero for bringing the coach safely to a halt. Handley dies at the age of 76 after a short illness in January 2011.

Suspicions immediately fall upon the IRA, which is in the midst of an armed campaign in Britain involving numerous operations, later including the Guildford pub bombing and the Birmingham pub bombings.

Reactions in Britain are furious, with senior politicians from all parties calling for immediate action against the perpetrators and the IRA in general. The British media are equally condemnatory. According to The Guardian, it is “the worst IRA outrage on the British mainland” at that time, whilst the BBC describes it as “one of the IRA’s worst mainland terror attacks.” The Irish newspaper The Sunday Business Post later describes it as the “worst” of the “awful atrocities perpetrated by the IRA” during this period.

IRA Army Council member Dáithí Ó Conaill is challenged over the bombing and the death of civilians during an interview, and replies that the coach had been bombed because IRA intelligence indicated that it was carrying military personnel only.

Following the explosion, the British public and politicians from all three major parties call for “swift justice.” The ensuing police investigation led by Detective Chief Superintendent George Oldfield is rushed, careless, and ultimately forged, resulting in the arrest of the mentally ill Judith Ward who claims to have conducted a string of bombings in Britain in 1973 and 1974 and to have married and had a baby with two separate IRA members. Despite her retraction of these claims, the lack of any corroborating evidence against her, and serious gaps in her testimony – which is frequently rambling, incoherent, and “improbable” – she is wrongfully convicted in November 1974.

The case against Ward is almost completely based on inaccurate scientific evidence using the Griess test and deliberate manipulation of her confession by some members of the investigating team. The case is similar to those of the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, and the Maguire Seven, which occur at the same time and involve similar forged confessions and inaccurate scientific analysis. Ward is finally released in 1992, when three Appeal Court judges hold unanimously that her conviction was “a grave miscarriage of justice,” and that it had been “secured by ambush.”


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The Guildford Four Are Released From Prison

guildford-four-releaseAfter serving 15 years in prison, the Guildford Four, Gerry Conlon, Patrick Armstrong, Carole Richardson, and Paul Hill, are released on October 19, 1989, in what is considered to be one of the biggest-ever miscarriages of justice in Britain.

On October 5, 1974, an Irish Republican Army (IRA) bomb kills four people in a Guildford pub frequented by British military personnel, while another bomb in Woolwich kills three. British investigators rush to find suspects and soon settle on Gerry Conlon and Paul Hill, two residents of Northern Ireland who are in the area at the time of the terrorist attack.

Under the recently rewritten Prevention of Terrorism Act, British investigators are allowed to hold and interrogate terrorist suspects for five days without any hard evidence. Conlon and Hill, who are nonpolitical petty criminals, are among the first suspects held under the new law. During their prison stay, investigators fabricate against them an IRA conspiracy that implicates a number of their friends and family members. The officers then force the two suspects to sign confessions under physical and mental torture. In October 1975, Gerry Conlon, Paul Hill, Paddy Armstrong, and Carole Richardson are sentenced to life in prison – mandatory for adults convicted of murder. Seven of their relatives and friends, called the Maguire Seven, are sentenced to lesser terms on the basis of questionable forensic evidence.

In 1989, detectives from Avon and Somerset Constabulary, investigating the handling of the case, find three significant pieces of evidence in relation to Surrey Police‘s handling of the Guildford Four and their statements.

Firstly, typed notes from Patrick Armstrong’s police interviews which had been heavily edited. Deletions and additions had been made, and the notes had been rearranged. These notes, and their amendments, are consistent with hand-written and typed notes presented at the trial, which suggest that the hand-written notes are made after the interviews had been conducted. The notes presented had been described in court as contemporaneous records.

Secondly, a series of manuscript notes relating to an interview with Hill, which show that Hill’s fifth statement is taken in breach of Judges’ Rules, and may well have been inadmissible as evidence. The information is not made available to the Director of Public Prosecutions or the prosecution. Further, the officers involved had denied under oath that such an interview had happened.

Thirdly, detention records are inconsistent with the times and durations of the claimed interviews reported by the Surrey police.

In the face of growing public protest and after the disclosure of exonerating evidence, including the admittance of guilt in the bombings by an imprisoned IRA member, the group’s conviction is declared “unsafe and unsatisfactory.” The Guildford Four are cleared of all charges and released after 15 years in prison. The following year a British appeals court also overturns the convictions of the Maguire Seven, who were jailed on the basis of forensic evidence that is shown to have no relevant scientific basis.

(Pictured: Gerry Conlon on his release from prison in 1989)