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


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Assassination of Sir Richard Sykes, British Ambassador to the Netherlands

Sir Richard Adam Sykes, KCMG, MC, the British Ambassador to the Netherlands, is assassinated by two members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) outside his residence in The Hague on March 22, 1979.

Sykes is born on May 8, 1920 to Brigadier A. C. Sykes. For his schooling he attends Wellington College before going up to the University of Oxford, where he attends Christ Church.

During World War II, Sykes serves in the British Army with the Royal Signals from 1940 to 1946. During his service he attains the rank of major. In 1945 he is awarded the Military Cross as well as the Croix de Guerre by France.

Sykes joined HM Foreign Service in 1947 and serves at the Foreign Office from 1947 to 1948. He then serves in Nanjing (1948–50), Peking (1950–52) and returns to the UK to serve at the Foreign Office (1952–56). His next overseas postings take him to Brussels (1956–59), Santiago (1959–62) and Athens (1963–66), before returning to the Foreign Office (1967–69).

Sykes’ first posting as an ambassador comes with a posting to Havana (1970–72) before moving to be a Minister at the British Embassy in Washington D.C. (1972–1975). From there he returns to the Foreign Office as Department Under-Secretary between 1975 and 1977. He is then appointed as Ambassador to the Netherlands in 1977.

Sykes is leaving his residence in The Hague at 9:00 a.m. on March 22, 1979, and is getting into his silver Rolls-Royce limousine when he is shot. He is sitting next to Alyson Bailes. The car door is held by Karel Straub, a 19-year-old Dutch national who works at the embassy. Straub is also shot in the attack. The chauffeur, Jack Wilson, is uninjured and drives Sykes to Westeinde Hospital, where he dies two hours later. Straub is transported by ambulance to the same hospital, where he also dies.

Police report that the shots came from around 10 yards away by two assailants wearing business suits, who escaped on foot following the attack. Suspects for the assassination are Palestinians or Iraqis, although no evidence is ever put forward. It is ultimately confirmed that the IRA had carried out the killings.

The IRA claims responsibility for the assassination in February 1980. In a statement they say of Sykes, “[he was] not just a Brit propagandist, as are all British ambassadors, but because he had been engaged in intelligence operations against our organisation.”

The ‘intelligence operations’ mentioned in the statement relate to a government report written by Sykes following the assassination of Christopher Ewart-Biggs. Ewart-Biggs was the British Ambassador to the Republic of Ireland and was killed by the IRA in 1976. Sykes produces diplomatic security guidelines as part of his report.

Sykes’ position as Ambassador to the Netherlands had been strained due to certain Dutch groups, which were sympathetic to the IRA, and consequent arms smuggling activities.

There is a memorial plaque to Sykes in St. Michael’s Church, Wilsford, Wiltshire.

(Pictured: “Sir Richard Sykes” by Bassano Ltd., half-plate film negative, 20 January 1966, National Portrait Gallery, London)


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Grote Markt, Brussels Bombing

On August 28, 1979, a bomb explodes under an open‐air stage on the Grote Markt in Brussels, Belgium where a British Army band is preparing to give a concert, injuring at least 15 persons, including four bandsmen, and causes extensive damage. Mayor Pierre van Halteren of Brussels says the Irish Republican Army (IRA) claims responsibility for the bombing in a telephone call to city hall.

The bombing comes just a day after Earl Mountbatten of Burma and three others are killed in a bombing in the Irish Republic, and 18 British soldiers die in an attack in Northern Ireland. The IRA claims responsibility for both attacks.

The band is from the Duke of Edinburgh’s Royal Regiment, which is stationed in Osnabrück, West Germany. The bombing occurs only minutes before the band is to have begun a concert in the broad square, a major tourist site surrounded by centuries‐old buildings. However, only 6 of the 30 members of the band are on the makeshift stage when the bomb explodes at about 3:00 PM. The others had left the stage to change into their red dress uniforms after setting up music stands and instruments.

The band is held up in traffic and is late arriving for the concert. The police say that if the bomb had gone off later, during the concert, the casualty toll would have been heavier.

Before the IRA telephone call is reported, Earl Nicoll, military attaché at the British Embassy in Brussels, says, “I’d guess it is either the IRA or people sympathetic to their aims. It is clearly a manifestation they wanted to hit the band, not any Belgians.”

The temporary stage is used for daily concerts to mark the city’s 1,000th birthday. A police spokesman says the explosives were under the stage floor in the back, on the side away from the square. At the time of the explosion only a few hundred people, most of them tourists, are in the square, which is lined by outdoor cafes, flower stalls and centuries‐old guildhalls.

The blast creates a 90‐by‐30‐foot hole in the stage floor, and severely damages the back wall and the ceiling. It shatters windows in the ancient buildings. A police spokesman says investigators did not yet know what kind of bomb was used. Officials estimate the damage at $134,000 to $167,000.

Irish guerrillas are accused of responsibility for several other attacks in Belgium in recent months, including one in June 1979 involving Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr., then Supreme Allied Commander Europe for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

A number of other recent terrorist attacks on the continent are blamed on the IRA. On March 22, 1979, Sir Richard Sykes, Britain’s Ambassador to the Netherlands, and his Dutch valet are shot and killed as the envoy leaves for work in The Hague. On the same day, a Belgian bank employee is shot to death in front of his home in suburban Brussels in what police believe is a case of mistaken identity on the part of the IRA. Officials believe the gunmen were after Sir John Killick, deputy chief of Britain’s mission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which has its headquarters in Belgium.

On July 6, a bomb that officials believe to be planted by the IRA goes off in the British consulate building in Antwerp, Belgium, causing damage but no injuries. Four days later, two bombs go off at two British Rhine Army barracks in Dortmund, West Germany, causing extensive damage but again no injuries. The IRA claims responsibility for those and other bombings at facilities of the 50,000‐member Rhine Army.

(From: “I.R.A. Sets Off Bomb at Belgian Concert,” The New York Times, August 29, 1979)