Ends and Means

Back Channels

The events in Londonderry on the 30th January 1972 that became known as Bloody Sunday are still in the news today and still a cause of controversy. Whilst the shooting of civilians by the Parachute Regiment was widely reported analysed and debated at the time and over the subsequent decades a meeting held a few days after Bloody Sunday, between a senior member of the Provisional IRA (PIRA) and a British government official, was part of a series of events that would have profound and bloody consequences for hundreds of people throughout 1972 and beyond.

The meeting remained secret during the troubles, but in government papers released under the ‘thirty year rule’, a memorandum by the government official, dated 9th February 1972, noted that “the minimum concessions which the Provisionals would expect are an assumption by Westminster of responsibility for law, order and security in Northern Ireland and a guarantee that internment (without trial) would be phased out”.

At the same time that this secret meeting was occurring Cabinet meeting minutes, dated 3rd February 1972, show British government Ministers outlining possible arrangements for Northern Ireland. The minutes also reveal some unease over events in the country and world opinion “becoming increasingly critical”. There is also a mention of the possibility of direct rule whilst their proposed plans were being implemented.

The secret back channel contact in February 1972 was not the last meeting between PIRA and British politicians that year. Although the general public were unaware of what was happening I would argue that these unseen exchanges, between PIRA and the British political class (both the Conservative government and Labour opposition), had a tragic consequence for the civilian population and the security forces. The talks motivated PIRA to escalate their campaign of violence. PIRA perceived the talks as evidence that the British government were open to negotiation and could be coerced, through violence, into concessions and perhaps a withdrawal from Northern Ireland. I believe that it is not a coincidence that 1972 was the deadliest year of the troubles.

Decades later, with our knowledge of secret back channel meetings, I would argue that PIRA’s ruling Army Council had decided shocks to the system, in a final ‘big push’, were required to achieve British withdrawal. They set out to create a series of violent spectacles for the news media to relay to the general public.

Four years earlier in 1968, on the other side of the world, communist insurgents in South Vietnam had staged a co-ordinated series of attacks known as the Tet Offensive. Whilst it was not a military success, it was a propaganda victory for the North Vietnamese and undermined public opinion in America, adding to the pressure on the US administration to withdraw from Vietnam. PIRA had opted for their own version of Tet, to put on display their capabilities and ruthlessness.

Lower Donegall Street

The purest form of terrorism in a society is a willingness to deliberately target civilians. It means no-one is safe. It is a strategy of tension that impacts on everyone. Total terrorism.

In another article https://umbravoices.blogspot.com/2019/04/ I outline events regarding the bombing of the Abercorn Restaurant in Belfast on the 4th March 1972, only a month after the secret contact between PIRA and a British official. The bomb killed two young women and injured 130 people. There was inadequate warning and the customers never had a chance to evacuate. Whilst some may argue that this was a mistake or botched operation by PIRA, I would contend that it was a premeditated attack on civilians and forms part of a pattern in PIRA activity. Sixteen days later, only a short distance from the Abercorn, PIRA struck again at civilians. This simple summary of events reveals an act of terrorism that was intended to cause civilian casualties.

Monday 20th March 1972, 11.45am

The first warning was in a telephone call to a carpet dealer. The warning stated that there was a bomb in Church Lane, which is a busy street in the centre of Belfast. The street would be crowded with shoppers, office workers and school children at lunchtime. Police and military were alerted to the threat and personnel were tasked to attend and evacuate the area.


The second telephone warning was received by the Irish News, a local Nationalist newspaper.. This warning also stated that there was a bomb in Church Street.


The third and final telephone warning was received by The Newsletter, another local newspaper that is considered a Unionist paper. This warning stated that the bomb was outside it’s office building in Lower Donegall Street, rather than Church Lane. The warning stated that they had fifteen minutes to evacuate. The people being evacuated from Church Lane, the location given for the bomb in the first two telephone warnings, were being ushered towards Lower Donegall Street, the actual location of the bomb. PIRA knew this would happen and the misleading warnings were intended to draw a crowd towards the car bomb.


Three minutes after the third warning to The Newsletter, rather than the fifteen stated, a 200 pound bomb, packed inside a Ford Cortina exploded sending a ball of flame down the street. The blast instantly killed two police officers who had been standing next to the car. The officers had, moments earlier, been helping to evacuate people from Church Lane and had stopped to examine the vehicle. The blast wave rolled through the crowd of people who had just arrived in the immediate area. Bodies were thrown across the street. Four men were killed instantly by the blast. A fifth man, who was seriously injured, died the following month in hospital. Apart from the 7 who had died, another 148 people were injured, both by the blast and shards of glass, masonry and other debris that rained down on the street from adjacent buildings damaged by the explosion. Many of the victims were schoolgirls.

Those who arrived at the scene to help found dozens of wounded men, women and children. Many of the victims were seriously injured; limbs missing, eyes blinded and a range of other horrific wounds. Shocked victims wandered around the street, unsure what to do. Injured people were screaming and crying. Emergency amputations were performed at the scene. Ambulances took victims to hospital as police and fire-fighters pulled more people from under the debris, including victims inside the badly damaged offices of The Newsletter. We should remind ourselves at this point that, only sixteen days previously and a short distance away PIRA had murdered and maimed civilians at the Abercorn. If they had made a mistake that day when giving a warning then you would think that they would have been more careful in subsequent attacks; clearly these were not mistakes. There was no need for learning. The bombers knew exactly what they were doing. The carnage in Lower Donegall Street was planned, just as was the terror attack on the Abercorn Restaurant.

The Day After

The day after the bombing, the Provisional IRA admitted responsibility but tried to shift blame for the deaths and injuries. PIRA claimed they regretted the civilian casualties, but that they had given adequate warnings and the security forces had made a mistake by moving people towards the bomb. This was a regularly used narrative by PIRA throughout the troubles. By claiming that they had given a warning they were creating a propaganda narrative intended to provide plausible deniability when accused of the deliberate targeting of civilians. PIRA therefore absolved themselves of blame. A measure of the success of this propaganda tactic is that, decades later, many still accept their lies as facts. Following the explosion a report in The Newsletter stated that, “Police said the terrorists had deliberately plotted to get as many people into Donegall Street as possible”.  This of course runs counter to the PIRA version of events on the day and throughout the troubles. People sympathetic to their cause would refute the accusation. A central part of the PIRA narrative is that they do not target civilians. This is PIRA’s Disneyfication of terrorism and reimagination of the past.


On the 24th March, four days after the car bombing of Lower Donegall Street and twenty days after the Abercorn Restaurant bomb attack, the British government imposed direct rule on Northern Ireland, ending five decades of Unionist rule in Northern Ireland. This was one of the concessions demanded by PIRA at the secret February meeting. The government’s motivation for imposing direct rule can, of course, be debated. Perhaps it was a concession to PIRA, but it could just as easily have been planned prior to these bombings, due to the overall deterioration in the country. Regardless of the motivation, I would suggest the secret talks and this political decision were perceived by PIRA as a concession, a reaction to their violence. Rather than help bring about peace, the actions of the government exacerbated the situation. PIRA felt they were in the ascendant and that violence was working. They were an insurgent force engaged in asymmetric warfare against a significantly larger opponent. A psychological blow against the British public, involving the murder and maiming of civilians, was considered by PIRA to be not only necessary but acceptable. The ends justified the means.

As I will show in future blogs, the template created for secret talks, propaganda and terrorist attacks on civilians in early 1972, foreshadowed what was to follow later in the year, including a secret meeting in London, a wave of two dozen bombs against civilian targets in a single day in Belfast, and the formation of a secret PIRA unit that murdered and “disappeared” it’s victims. As 1972 progressed, a younger PIRA leadership would emerge, with figures such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, taking prominent roles in secret talks and determining PIRA strategy.

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