The bombing takes place at a time when the Northern Ireland Office arranges multi-party talks, known as the Brooke/Mayhew talks, on the future of Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin members are not invited to attend because of their links with the IRA, which prevents them from being recognised as a “constitutional” party. The talks end in failure soon after.
At 11:30 PM, a driverless truck loaded with 2,500 lb (1,100 kg) of a new type of homemade explosive is rolled down a hill at the rear of the barracks and crashes through the perimeter fence. According to a witness, a UDR lance corporal who alerts the base, the truck is a Mercedes, and a Toyota HiAce van carrying at least two men acts as a support vehicle. The men are seen outside the parked van, masked and armed, one with a handgun and the other with a submachine gun. This same witness alerts the base believing the IRA team are about to carry out a mortar attack, and debris thrown up on the roof by the lorry as it plunges down the hill is misinterpreted by some inside the base as a mortar projectile. Automatic fire is heard by other witnesses just before the main blast. A Reuters report claims that IRA members trigger the bomb by firing upon the driverless vehicle. It is later determined that the lorry had been stolen the day before in Kingscourt, County Cavan, in the Republic of Ireland.
The blast leaves a crater 200 ft. (61 m) deep and throws debris and shrapnel as far as 300 yards (270 m). The explosion can be heard over 30 miles (48 km) away, as far as Dundalk. This is the biggest bomb detonated by the IRA up to this point. Most of the UDR base is destroyed by the blast and the fire that follows. At first, a massive mortar attack is suspected. Some livestock are killed and windows broken around the nearby Mossfield housing as a result of the explosion. The cars parked outside the base are obliterated. Ceilings are brought down and the local primary school is also damaged.
The barracks is usually manned by eight soldiers, but at the time there are 40 people in the complex, attending a social event. Three UDR soldiers – Lance Corporal Robert Crozier (46), Private Sydney Hamilton (44) and Private Paul Blakely (30) – are killed and ten are wounded. Two of them are caught by the explosion when they come out to investigate after a sentry gives the alarm. A third dies inside the base. Four civilians are also wounded. The Provisional IRA claims responsibility two days later.
The base is never rebuilt. It had outlived its operational usefulness and a decision had already been taken to close it down. The decision not to rebuild the compound raises some controversy among unionists. A memorial stone is erected by the main entrance road with the names of the UDR soldiers killed over the years while serving in Glenanne.
England had been relatively untouched by the violence up until the beginning of 1973, but the IRA Army Council draws 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 IRA began its bombing campaign in England. 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 IRA decide to take its campaign to Britain in return. The arrest of top IRA personnel in both the Republic and Northern Ireland like Máire Drumm, Seán Mac Stíofáin, Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Martin McGuinness in late 1972 help to convince the IRA to bomb England to take the heat off of the IRA in Ireland.
The IRA selects the volunteers who constitute the Active Service Unit (ASU) for the England bombing operation, which is scheduled to take place on March 8, 1973, the same day that a border poll, boycotted by Nationalists and Roman Catholics, is being held in Belfast. Volunteers from all three of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade Battalions are selected for the bombing mission. The team includes Gerry Kelly (19), Robert “Roy” Walsh (24), an expert bomb maker from Belfast, Hugh Feeney, a Belfast-born IRA volunteer and explosives expert, and two sisters, Marian (19) and Dolours Price (22) from Belfast and are 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).
Several days before the bombing, the leaders of the IRA ASU, which includes sisters Marian and Dolours Price, go to London and pick out four targets: the Old Bailey, the Ministry of Agriculture, an army recruitment office near Whitehall and New Scotland Yard. They then report back to their Officer Commanding (OC) in Belfast, and the IRA Army Council gives the go ahead. The bombs are made in Ireland and transported to London via ferry, according to Marian Price.
The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) warns the British that the ASU is traveling to England, but are unable to provide specifics as to the target.
The drivers and the volunteers who are to prime the bombs wake up at 6:00 a.m. and drive the car bombs to their various targets. Gerry Kelly and Roy Walsh drive their car bomb to the Old Bailey. It is planned that by the time the bombs go off around 3:00 p.m., the ASU will be back in Ireland. The bomb at New Scotland Yard is found at 8:30 a.m. by a policeman who notices a discrepancy in the licence plate. The bomb team starts lifting out 5-pound (2.3 kg) bags of explosives and separates them, so that if the bomb does go off, the force of the explosion will be greatly reduced. The bomb squad eventually finds the detonating cord leads, which run under the front passenger seat of the car. Peter Gurney, a senior member of New Scotland Yard, cuts the detonator cord leads, defusing the bomb.
However, at the Old Bailey the bomb explodes, injuring many and causing extensive damage. Scotland Yard states it had warned the City of London police at 2:01 p.m. to search near the Old Bailey for a green Ford Cortina. The car is not located until 2:35 p.m. and explodes at 2:49 p.m. while police are evacuating the area. Several more people are injured by the car bomb near the Ministry of Agriculture, which brings the total number injured to over two hundred. A British man, Frederick Milton (60), dies of a heart attack. Dolours Price writes 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 is caught trying to leave the country at Heathrow Airport prior to the explosions, as the police had been forewarned about the bombings and are checking all passengers to Belfast and Dublin. All ten give false names that do not match their documents and they are detained. The IRA Volunteer who gave a warning about the bombs an hour before they exploded is the only one not captured.
The IRA volunteers have to be tried at Winchester Crown court in Winchester Castle as the Old Bailey is wrecked by the car bomb. The trial takes ten weeks and is set amid extremely strict security. William McLarnon pleads guilty to all charges on the first day of the trial. On November 14, 1973, a jury convicts six men and two women of the bombings. The jury acquits Roisin McNearney in exchange for information and she is given a new identity. As her verdict is handed down, the other defendants begin to hum the “Dead March” from Saul, and one throws a coin at her, shouting, “Take your blood money with you” as she leaves the dock in tears. Six of the nine people convicted admit to Provisional IRA membership.
The judge sentences the eight to life imprisonment for the bombings and 20 years for conspiracy, while William McLarnon, whose family was forced out of their home in August 1969, is sentenced to 15 years. When his sentence is read he shouts, “Up The Provisional IRA.” As the eight are led to the cells below the court, several give raised fist salutes to relatives and friends in the public gallery. The Price sisters immediately go 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 are eventually moved to jails in Ireland as part of the 1975 IRA truce agreed with the British. In 1983, Kelly escapes from Maze Prison and becomes part of an IRA ASU in the Netherlands. He is recaptured three years later by the Dutch authorities and extradited.
One of the Old Bailey bombers, Marian Price, explains the IRA’s reasoning for bombing England. “It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s Irish people dying.” So if the armed struggle was to succeed then it was necessary to “bring it to the heart of the British Establishment.” Hence symbolic targets such as the Old Bailey “were carefully chosen.”
From 1985 onwards, the IRA in East Tyrone had been at the forefront of a campaign against British state police and army facilities and their personnel. In 1987, an East Tyrone IRA unit was ambushed with eight of its members being killed by the SAS while they were making an attack on a police station in Loughgall, County Armagh. This was the IRA’s greatest loss of life in a single incident during The Troubles. Despite these losses, the IRA’s campaign continued, with it attacking nearly 100 police and military facilities over the next five years, wrecking thirty three and damaging the remainder to varying degrees. The SAS ambush has no noticeable long-term effect on the level of IRA activity in East Tyrone. In the two years before the Loughgall ambush, the IRA killed seven people in East Tyrone and North Armagh, and eleven in the two years following the ambush.
Three other IRA members – Gerard Harte, Martin Harte and Brian Mullin – had been ambushed and killed by the SAS as they tried to kill an off-duty Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) soldier near Carrickmore, County Tyrone. British intelligence identified them as the perpetrators of the Ballygawley bus bombing, which killed eight British soldiers. After that bombing, all troops going on leave or returning from leave were ferried in and out of East Tyrone by helicopter. Another high-profile attack of the East Tyrone Brigade was carried out on January 11, 1990, near Augher, where a Gazelle helicopter was shot down.
On June 3, 1991, three IRA men, Lawrence McNally, Michael “Pete” Ryan and Tony Doris, were killed at the town of Coagh, when a stolen car they were driving in on their way to kill an off-duty Ulster Defence Regiment soldier was ambushed by the Special Air Service. Ryan was the same man who, according to Irish journalist and author Ed Moloney, had led an attack on Derryard checkpoint on the orders of IRA Army Council member Thomas “Slab” Murphy two years earlier.
The IRA’s East Tyrone Brigade lost 53 members killed by the British Forces during the Troubles – the highest of any “Brigade areaz.” Of these, 28 were killed between 1987 and 1992.
At 10.30 p.m. on the night of February 16, 1992, a stolen car and lorry carrying multiple IRA attackers drives into the centre of the village of Coalisland and, pulling up at its fortified Royal Ulster Constabulary security base, fires 30 rounds of armour-piercing tracer ammunition into it at close range from a Soviet Union made DShK heavy machine-gun that they had mounted on the back of the lorry. The heavy machine gun is fired by IRA member Kevin O’Donnell, the rest of the unit being armed with Soviet-made AKMassault rifles. The IRA attackers then drive off at speed up Annagher hill, without any apparent pursuit from the security forces. While making their escape they drive past the home of Tony Doris, an IRA man who had been killed by the British Army the previous year, where they stop to fire into the air, shouting, “Up the ‘RA, that’s for Tony Doris!” Witnesses also report the IRA men waving Irish Tricolours from the back of the lorry. After this they drive on at speed to the car park of St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in the village of Clonoe, two miles away from Coalisland police station, arriving at 10.45 p.m., where getaway cars are waiting.
Immediately on arrival, the IRA attackers are in the process of preparing to abandon the attack vehicles and dismounting the DShK to take with them when they are assailed by a British Army detachment that had been lying in wait for them in the car park’s perimeter, primarily composed of soldiers from the Special Air Service, who engage them with sustained automatic fire. Patrick Vincent, age 20, the driver of the stolen lorry, is shot dead with five bullets while still in its cab. Peter Clancy, age 19, and Kevin O’Donnell, age 21) are killed while dismounting the DShK on the back of the lorry. Sean O’Farrell, age 23, is pursued on foot across the church grounds over a distance of 100 yards before being shot dead with five bullets while trying to climb over a fence. Two other IRA men, one of them being Aidan McKeever, who are found sitting in a car in the car park with the intention of acting as getaway drivers, surrender after being wounded and are taken prisoner. The roof of the church is accidentally set on fire after a stray round hit a fuel storage tank. One British soldier is wounded during the confrontation. An IRA statement reports that another active service unit made up of at least four volunteers taking part in the operation at Coalisland “escaped unharmed” under heavy fire in other vehicles after splitting up into two teams.
Several witnesses to the ambush later claim that some of the IRA men tried to surrender to the British Army engaging unit during the ambush but were summarily executed. Justice Seamus Treacy of Northern Ireland’s High Court awards McKeever, the IRA getaway driver, £75,000 in damages in 2011. It is unclear whether or not this decision is appealed, or whether the damages are ever paid.
A local IRA source points out areas of incompetence in the attack by the IRA unit involved that leads to its destruction:
The use of a long-range weapon for a short-range shooting. The DShK can be used up to 2,000 metres from the target, and its armour-piercing capabilities at 1,500 metres are still considerable.
The use of tracer rounds is ill-judged as they easily reveal the firing location of the gun if it is not being fired from a well-hidden position.
The escape route is chosen at random, with the machine-gun in full sight and the support vehicle flashing its hazard lights.
The gathering of so many men at the same place after such an attack is another factor in the failure to escape for most of the attacking force.
During the funeral services for O’Donnell and O’Farrell in Coalisland, the parish priest criticises the security forces for what happened at Clonoe church, which had resulted in the deaths of the four IRA men. The priest, Fr. MacLarnon, then appeals to the IRA and Sinn Féin to replace “the politics of confrontation with the politics of cooperation.” While Francie Molloy, a local Sinn Féin councillor, walks out of the church in protest, leading Sinn Féin politicians Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness remain in their seats. There are hundreds of Royal Ulster Constabulary police officers outside the church during the funeral, the RUC having changed its policy after the Milltown Cemetery attack. This show of force is criticised by Sinn Féin.
This is the last occasion that IRA members are killed in a series of ambushes by the British Army, spearheaded by the Special Air Service, in Northern Ireland. Growing tension between locals and the British military foot-patrols lead to street confrontations with soldiers from the Parachute Regiment three months later.
(Pictured: The ambush scene at Clonoe, County Tyrone, where four IRA men were shot dead by the British army in February 1992)
On January 22, 1986 the East Tyrone Brigade fires mortars at the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) base in Dungannon, County Tyrone, injuring two UDR soldiers and damaging the base. Just over a week later, on February 1, it carries out a large van bomb attack on the RUC base at Coalisland, County Tyrone, damaging the base and several houses and shops.
The Birches base attack is a complex attack that involves several units, including teams of lookouts, an armed team and bomb-makers as well as a team to carry out a diversionary attack. A diversionary bomb attack is staged at Pomeroy to draw security forces away from the real target at the Birches. Another team hijacks a JCB digger, getaway vehicles and scout cars at Washing Bay.
The digger is used to deliver the bomb to its target. The IRA does not expect any resistance as the RUC station is unmanned at the time of the attack. The IRA first rakes the base with automatic gunfire while the digger, with the bomb in its bucket, is driven through the high wire perimeter fence which had been constructed to protect the base from grenade or mortar attack. The digger is most likely driven by young IRA volunteer Declan Arthurs from Galbally, County Tyrone, who has experience driving diggers on his family’s farm. A volunteer then lights a fuse and the bomb explodes after the IRA hads retreated to safety in a waiting van. The blast destroys most of the base and also damages nearby buildings, blowing the roof off a pub across the road. The IRA team then makes its getaway. According to journalist Mark Urban, the armed members of the unit evade British security force roadblocks by escaping in a boat across Lough Neagh.
About 35 people are reportedly involved in the Birches attack, from planning, executing the attack and creating an escape route. A partially-disabled American tourist and six local civilians are slightly injured in the blast.
A member of the British security forces tells Mark Urban of the attack: “The Birches RUC station was destroyed by the bomb, creating problems for the authorities about how to re-build it. The Tyrone IRA was able to combine practical skills such as bomb-making and the welding needed to make mortars with considerable resources. Its members went on operations carrying the latest assault rifles and often wore body-armour similar to that used by the security forces, giving them protection against pistol or sub-machine-gun fire. By 1987 they had also succeeded in obtaining night-sights, allowing them to aim weapons or observe their enemy in darkness.”
The IRA unit’s next major target is the RUC station at Loughgall, which is attacked in the same manner. This operation is a disaster for the IRA as the IRA unit is ambushed by the Special Air Service (SAS). The entire IRA unit of eight, along with a Catholic civilian, are shot dead. Many of those IRA volunteers killed at Loughgall had taken part in the Birches attack, like Pádraig McKearney, Jim Lynagh and Patrick J. Kelly.
On the morning of April 9, 1990, two UDR armoured landrovers are traveling from Abercorn Barracks to Downpatrick. An IRA unit has planted a 1,000-pound improvised land mine in a culvert under the Ballydugan Road, just outside the town. The unit waits in woodland overlooking the road, about 350 feet away. As the landrovers drive over the culvert, the IRA detonates the bomb by command wire. The huge blast blows the vehicle into a field and gouges a large crater in the road, 50 feet wide and 15 feet deep. A witness describes “a scene of utter carnage.” Four soldiers are killed: Michael Adams (23), John Birch (28), John Bradley (25), and Steven Smart (23). It is the biggest loss of life suffered by the UDR since the 1983 Ballygawley land mine attack. The soldiers in the other landrover suffer severe shock and are airlifted to hospital. According to police, a civilian driver also suffers shock and another receives cuts and bruises.
The bombers escape on a motorcycle which had been stolen in Newry a week earlier, and is later found abandoned in Downpatrick. The IRA issues a statement saying the attack was carried out by members of its South Down Brigade.
Seven people are killed in the explosion, including two members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), who say they had evacuated people to what was considered to have been a safe area following misleading telephone calls, which had originally placed the device in a nearby street. The Provisional IRA Belfast Brigade admits responsibility for the bomb, which also injures 148 people, but claims that the security forces had deliberately misrepresented the warnings in order to maximise the casualties. This is one of the first car bombs the IRA uses in their armed campaign.
On Monday, March 20, 1972, at 11.45 a.m., a local carpet dealer receives a telephone call warning that a bomb will explode in Belfast city centre’s Church Street which is crowded with shoppers, office workers on lunch breaks, and schoolchildren. British Army troops and the RUC are alerted and immediately begin to evacuate the people into nearby Lower Donegall Street. The second call to The Irish News newspaper seven minutes later also gives Church Street as the location for the device. A final call comes at 11:55 a.m. advising The News Letter newspaper that the bomb is instead placed outside its offices in Lower Donegall Street where the crowds have being sent. Thus, the warning arrives too late for the security forces to clear the street. Staff working inside The News Letter building are told by the caller that they have 15 minutes in which to leave the building, but they never have a chance to evacuate.
At 11:58 a.m. a 100-pound gelignite bomb explodes inside a green Ford Cortina parked in the street outside the offices of The News Letter, shaking the city centre with the force of its blast, and instantly killing the two RUC constables, Ernest McAllister (31) and Bernard O’Neill (36), who had been examining the vehicle. The remains of the two policemen are allegedly found inside a nearby building. Minutes earlier they had been helping to escort people away from Church Street.
The explosion sends a ball of flame rolling down the street and a pall of black smoke rising upward. The blast wave rips into the crowds of people who had run into Donegall Street for safety, tossing them in all directions and killing another four men outright: Ernest Dougan (39), James Macklin (30), Samuel Trainor (39) and Sydney Bell (65). Trainor is also an off-duty Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) soldier and a member of the Orange Order. A seriously wounded pensioner, Henry Miller (79) dies in hospital on April 5. Most of the dead are mutilated beyond recognition. With the exception of Constable O’Neill, who is a Catholic, the other six victims are Protestants.
The explosion blows out all the windows in the vicinity, sending shards of glass into people’s bodies as they are hit by falling masonry and timber. The ground floor of The News Letter offices and all buildings in the area suffer heavy damage. The News Letter library in particular sustains considerable damage with many priceless photographs and old documents destroyed. Around the blast’s epicentre, the street resembles a battlefield. About one hundred schoolgirls lay wounded on the rubble-strewn, bloody pavement covered in glass and debris, and screaming in pain and fright. A total of 148 people are injured in the explosion, 19 of them seriously. Among the injured are many of The News Letter staff.
One of the wounded is a child whose injuries are so severe a rescue worker at the scene assumes the child has been killed. A young Czech art student, Blanka Sochor (22), receives severe injuries to her legs. She is photographed by Derek Brind of the Associated Press as a British Paratrooper holds her in his arms. Passerby Frank Heagan witnesses the explosion and comes upon what is left of two binmen who had been “blown to pieces.” He adds that “there was blood everywhere and people moaning and screaming. The street was full of girls and women all wandering around.” The injured can be heard screaming as the ambulances transport them to hospital. Emergency amputations are performed at the scene.
This is amongst the first car bombs used by the Provisional IRA during The Troubles in its militant campaign to force a British military withdrawal and reunite the six counties of Northern Ireland with the rest of the island of Ireland. It is part of the IRA’s escalation of violence to avenge the Bloody Sunday killings in which 13 unarmed Catholic civilian men were killed by the British Army’s Parachute Regiment when the latter opened fire during an anti-internment demonstration held in Derry on January 30, 1972.
The bombing is carried out by the North Belfast unit of the Provisional IRA’s Third Battalion Belfast Brigade. The OC of the Brigade at that time is the volatile Seamus Twomey, who orders and directs the attack.
On March 23, the IRA admits responsibility for the bomb with one Belfast Brigade officer later telling a journalist, “I feel very bad when the innocent die.” The IRA, however, tempers the admission by claiming that the caller had given Donegall Street as the correct location for the bomb in all the telephone calls and that the security forces had deliberately evacuated the crowds from Church Street to maximise the casualties. The IRA’s official statement claiming responsibility for the blast is released through the Irish Republican Publicity Bureau.
The IRA follows the Donegall Street attack two days later with a car bomb at a carpark adjacent to the Belfast Great Victoria Street railway station and close to the Europa Hotel. Seventy people are treated in hospital for injuries received mainly by flying glass, but there are no deaths. The blast causes considerable damage to two trains, parked vehicles, the hotel, and other buildings in the area.
Although many members of the Provisional IRA are rounded up by police in the wake of the Donegal Street attack, none of the bombers are ever caught nor is anyone ever charged in connection with the bombing.
Since the beginning of its campaign in 1969, the Provisional IRA has launched frequent attacks on British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) bases in Northern Ireland. In August 1985 it begins targeting civilians who offer services to the security forces, particularly those employed by the security forces to maintain and repair its bases. Between August 1985 and January 1992, the IRA kills 23 people who had been working for (or offering services to) the security forces. The IRA also alleges that some of those targeted had links with Ulster loyalistparamilitaries.
On the evening of January 17, 1992, the 14 construction workers leave work at Lisanelly British Army base in Omagh. They are employees of Karl Construction, based in Antrim. They travel eastward in a Ford Transit van towards Cookstown. When the van reaches the rural Teebane Crossroads, just after 5:00 PM, IRA volunteers detonate a roadside bomb containing an estimated 600 pounds (270 kg) of homemade explosives in two plastic barrels. Later estimates report a 1,500 pound (680 kg) device. The blast is heard from at least ten miles away. It rips through one side of the van, instantly killing the row of passengers seated there. The vehicle’s upper part is torn asunder, and its momentum keeps it tumbling along the road for 30 yards. Some of the bodies of the dead and injured are blown into the adjacent field and ditch. IRA volunteers had detonated the bomb from about 100 yards away using a command wire. A car travelling behind the van is damaged in the explosion but the driver is not seriously injured. Witnesses report hearing automatic fire immediately prior to the explosion.
Seven of the men are killed outright. They are William Gary Bleeks (25), Cecil James Caldwell (37), Robert Dunseath (25), David Harkness (23), John Richard McConnell (38), Nigel McKee (22) and Robert Irons (61). The van’s driver, Oswald Gilchrist (44), dies of his wounds in hospital four days later. Robert Dunseath is a British soldier serving with the Royal Irish Rangers. The other six workers are badly injured; two of them are members of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR). It is the highest death toll from one incident in Northern Ireland since 1988.
The IRA’s East Tyrone Brigade claims responsibility for the bombing soon afterward. It argues that the men were legitimate targets because they were “collaborators engaged in rebuilding Lisanelly barracks” and vowed that attacks on “collaborators” would continue.
Both unionist and Irish nationalist politicians condemn the attack. Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, however, describes the bombing as “a horrific reminder of the failure of British policy in Ireland.” He adds that it highlights “the urgent need for an inclusive dialogue which can create a genuine peace process.” British Prime MinisterJohn Major visits Northern Ireland within days and promises more troops, pledging that the IRA will not change government policy.
As all of those killed are Protestant, some interpret the bombing as a sectarian attack against their community. Less than three weeks later, the Ulster loyalist Ulster Defence Association (UDA) launches a ‘retaliation’ for the bombing. On February 5, two masked men armed with an automatic rifle and revolver enter Sean Graham’s betting shop on Ormeau Road in an Irish nationalist area of Belfast. The shop is packed with customers at the time. The men fire indiscriminately at the customers, killing five Irish Catholic civilians, before fleeing to a getaway car. The UDA claims responsibility using the cover name “Ulster Freedom Fighters,” ending its statement with “Remember Teebane.” After the shootings, a cousin of one of those killed at Teebane visits the betting shop and says, “I just don’t know what to say but I know one thing – this is the best thing that’s happened for the Provos [Provisional IRA] in this area in years. This is the best recruitment campaign they could wish for.”
The Historical Enquiries Team (HET) conducts an investigation into the bombing and releases its report to the families of the victims. It finds that the IRA unit had initially planned to carry out the attack on the morning of January 17 as the workers made their way to work but, due to fog, it was put off until the afternoon. Although suspects were rounded up and there were arrests in the wake of the attack, nobody has ever been charged or convicted of the bombing.
Karl Construction erects a granite memorial at the site of the attack and a memorial service is held there each year. In January 2012, on the 20th anniversary of the attack, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MLA, Trevor Clarke, whose brother-in-law Nigel McKee at age 22 was the youngest person killed in the bombing, demands that republicans provide the names of the IRA bombers.
McKearney joins the Provisional IRA and is first arrested in 1972 on charges of blowing up the post office in Moy. He spends six weeks on remand, but is released due to insufficient evidence. In December 1973 he is arrested again and later sentenced to seven years for possession of a rifle. He is imprisoned in Long Kesh Detention Centre and later in Magilligan Prison. During this time, a younger brother, Seán, also an IRA paramilitary, is killed on May 13, 1974. He is released in 1977 but is sentenced to 14 years in August 1980 after being caught by the British Army with a loaded Sten gun along with fellow IRA member Gerard O’Callaghan. That same year an older brother, Tommy McKearney, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of an off-duty Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) soldier who worked as a postman in 1977, nearly dies on hunger strike after refusing food for 53 days. Another brother, Kevin, and an uncle, Jack McKearney, are both murdered by Loyalist paramilitaries in revenge attacks upon the family.
On September 25, 1983 McKearney takes part in the Maze Prison escape along with 37 other prisoners. At the beginning of 1984 he rejoins IRA activity in his native East Tyrone with the Provisional IRA East Tyrone Brigade. He advocates the commencement of the “third phase” of the armed struggle, the ‘strategic defensive,’ in which the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), Ulster Defence Regiment and British Army would be denied all support in selected areas following repeated attacks on their bases. In 1985 Patrick Kelly becomes commander of the Provisional IRA East Tyrone Brigade and it is under his leadership that this strategy is pursued. Remote Royal Ulster Constabulary bases are attacked and destroyed, and building contractors who try to repair them are targeted and sometimes murdered, as occurs with the attack on the Ballygawley barracks in December 1985, which results in the death of two policemen, and The Birches police station in August 1986.
McKearney is shot dead by the British Army on May 8, 1987 during an IRA attack that he is taking part in upon Loughgall police station, which also claims the lives of seven other IRA members. His body is buried at his hometown of Moy.
Leading up to the attack, on April 9, 1990 four Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) soldiers (Michael Adams, John Birch, John Bradley, Steven Smart) are killed in a similar attack when the IRA detonates a land mine under their patrol vehicle on Ballydugan Road, Downpatrick, County Down. The land mine contains over 1,000 lbs. of explosives.
On the afternoon of July 24, 1990, 37-year-old nun Catherine Dunne is driving an Austin Metro car with a passenger, Cathy McCann, a 25-year-old social worker. Some hours previously, members of the IRA take over a house close to Killylea Road, two miles outside Armagh, County Armagh, holding its occupants, a married couple and their children, at gunpoint.
A detonating wire is placed from the house to a 1,000 lb. bomb, placed in a culvert under Killylea Road. At approximately 2:00 PM, as Dunne’s car is driving to Armagh, a Royal Ulster Constabulary patrol car is traveling in the opposite direction. Dunne’s car passes by the patrol car just as the police drive over the culvert, at which point the IRA detonate the bomb. Constable William James Hanson (37), and reserve officers Joshua Cyril Willis (35) and David Sterritt (34), are all killed instantly. Their car is blown into the air and lands upside down. Dunne and McCann are both severely injured with Dunne later dying of her injuries.
Witness Paul Corr, owner of a petrol filling station nearby, says, “The ground shook beneath us and it was accompanied by a very large explosion. At first we did not see the police car. The whole place was a terrible mess. Then we saw two young girls in the [Austin Metro]. They were unconscious and looked in a pretty bad way. There was nothing we could do for the policemen. Nobody could have come out of that car alive. It was dreadful.”
The bomb leaves a 20-foot-diameter crater in the two-lane road.
TaoiseachCharles Haughey is quoted as saying, “I know all the people of Ireland join me in my condemnation of this atrocity.”
The IRA releases a message claiming responsibility for the attack, and calls Dunne a victim of “unforeseen and fluke circumstances.” The statement is rejected in advance by political and Catholic and Protestant leaders alike and politicians in Ireland and Great Britain.
Sinn Féin‘s Martin McGuinness says, “Our sorrow at these deaths is genuine and profound, but will be abused by our political opponents who will cynically exploit yesterday’s events for their own political purpose.”
Pope John Paul II sends a message to be read at Dunne’s funeral in which he condemns the “grievous injustice and futility” of the murders that leave him “deeply shocked and saddened.” He implores “the men and women who espouse violence to recognise the grievous injustice and futility of terrorism.”
Two men, Henry McCartney (26) and Tarlac Connolly (29), are charged with the killings. They are later given life sentences but are released in 2000 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
During its existence, 95 USC members are killed in the line of duty. Seventy-two of these are killed in conflict with the IRA in 1921 and 1922. Another eight die in air raids or IRA attacks during World War II. Of the remainder, most die in accidents but two former officers are killed during the Troubles in the 1980s.
The force is almost exclusively Ulster Protestant and as a result is viewed with great mistrust by Catholics. It carries out several revenge killings and reprisals against Catholic civilians during the Irish War of Independence. Unionists generally support the USC as contributing to the defence of Northern Ireland from subversion and outside aggression.
The abolition of the B Specials is a central demand of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement in the late 1960s. On April 30, 1970, the USC is finally stood down as a result of the Hunt Report, produced by a committee headed by John Hunt, Baron Hunt in 1969. Hunt concludes that the perceived bias of the Special Constabulary, whether true or not, has to be addressed. One of his other major concerns is the use of the police force for carrying out military style operations.
It has been argued that the USC’s failure to deal with the 1969 disturbances were due to a failure on behalf of the Northern Ireland government to modernise their equipment, weaponry, training and approach to the job. Upon the disbandment of the USC, many of its members join the newly established Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), the part-time security force which replaces the B Specials. Unlike the Special Constabulary, the UDR is placed under military control. Other B Specials join the new part-time Reserve of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). The USC continues to do duties for a month after the formation of the UDR and RUC Reserve to allow both of the new forces time to consolidate.
In the final handover to the Ulster Defence Regiment, the B Specials have to surrender their weapons and uniforms. Despite the government’s concerns about the handover of weapons and equipment, every single uniform and every single weapon is surrendered.
After implementation of the Hunt report, the last night of duties for most B Men is March 31, 1970. On April 1, 1970 the Ulster Defence Regiment begins duties. Initially, the Regiment has 4,000 members who work part-time while the new special constabulary, the RUC Reserve which replaces the B-Specials, initially consists of 1,500 members.
Since disbandment the USC has assumed a place of “almost mythic proportions” within unionist folklore, whereas in the Nationalist community they are still reviled as the Protestant only, armed wing of the unionist government “associated with the worst examples of unfair treatment of Catholics in Northern Ireland by the police force.” An Orange Order lodge is formed to commemorate the disbandment of the force called “Ulster Special Constabulary LOL No. 1970.” An Ulster Special Constabulary Association is also set up soon after the disbandment.