Bloody Friday was one of the worst atrocities of the Northern Ireland troubles but you will seldom hear it mentioned. It was the deliberate targeting of civilians by the Provisional IRA (PIRA), with approximately twenty bombs detonated in eighty minutes of horror around Belfast (others were defused or failed to explode), murdering nine people and injuring one hundred and thirty, yet there is virtual silence surrounding these wanton acts of terrorism. Media and political attention tends to be directed to those with an effective propaganda machine.
Compare and contrast the lack of attention that Bloody Friday attracts with the tsunami of media coverage devoted to every PIRA Sinn Fein allegation of wrongdoing by the British state. Cold blooded murder by Irish Republicans does not fit the post ceasefire, reimagined past and Disneyfied version of terrorism that PIRA Sinn Fein has manufactured. The media, British government and others seem willing not only to accept PIRA Sinn Fein’s reimagined past, but to indulge them by propagating the lies on their behalf.
Bloody Friday did not happen in isolation. In the months leading up to the terrorist atrocity on 21st July 1972, PIRA had inadvertently developed the car bomb whilst trying to dispose of a home-made explosive device without wasting it. They did this by simply placing it in a car and driving it into the centre of Belfast, for detonation.
The birth of the car bomb led to carnage, with an explosion in March 1972 in Donegall Street, causing multiple casualties including seven deaths. This attack clearly involved the cynical shepherding of pedestrians into the vicinity of the bomb. The intentional targeting of civilians was also apparent two weeks earlier, with a bomb explosion inside the Abercorn Restaurant that again caused multiple casualties, including two deaths. These two attacks display, not just a willingness to endanger civilians by placing bombs in public places, but a calculated strategy of terror that accepts civilians will be killed and maimed. It was designed to weaken the resolve of the public and force the British government into negotiations, ultimately leading to withdrawal from Northern Ireland.
PIRA’s strategy of terror was emboldened by both the development of the car bomb and the newly acquired high powered Armalite rifles, smuggled across the Atlantic on the QE2, in an operation run by leading PIRA terrorist Brendan Hughes, allegedly at the behest of his friend and OC, Gerry Adams, despite the objections of PIRA’s leadership in Dublin. This was a sign of things to come, as a younger, more militant faction of PIRA, from north of the border, would gradually take control of the terrorist organisation.
The Final Push
Although he claims to have never been a member of the IRA, Gerry Adams has been identified repeatedly by informed commentators and PIRA personnel, as being a leading figure within Belfast PIRA in the early 1970s. It has been said that he was part of a triumvirate, along with Brendan Hughes and Ivor Bell, that quickly came to the fore, rising through the ranks in the first few years of the troubles. Hughes was also a close friend of Adams who acknowledged that he not only respected Adams, but that he was like a brother, who had once helped to save his life by arranging medical treatment for Hughes after he had been shot by the British Army.
In March 1972, Gerry Adams was on the run, evading arrest during the era of internment. His luck ran out when he returned home to visit his wife and the army swooped in an early morning raid. Adams was interned but his time as a guest in Long Kesh prison was short lived. Negotiations were under way between PIRA and the British government regarding a ceasefire and secret talks. One precondition for a ceasefire was made clear by Adams’ comrade and fellow member of the Belfast triumvirate, Ivor Bell. Without the release of Gerry Adams, there would be no ceasefire. This was a turning point in the life of Gerry Adams. His moment had arrived. Without this release, he may have spent years in prison whilst events outside continued on without him.
Just days after Adams was released from prison, he accompanied senior PIRA member Daithi O Connail, to a pre-ceasefire meeting on the Derry Donegal border, where he sat down with a Northern Ireland official, Phillip Woodfield and Frank Steele from MI6. It is worth remembering that Adams was still only twenty-three years old at the time, but yet PIRA valued him so highly that they had secured his freedom and included him in secret meetings with the British.
The PIRA ceasefire started at midnight on 26th June 1972 and less than two weeks later, a PIRA delegation was flown by the RAF to London, for a meeting with the Home Secretary William Whitelaw and various officials, at a flat in Cheyne Walk. The PIRA delegation consisted of the Chief of Staff, Sean MacStiofain; his Adjutant Daithi O Connail; Belfast Brigade Commander Seamus Twomey; Ivor Bell; Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams and a lawyer. By all accounts the meeting achieved nothing, with no willingness displayed by PIRA for compromise on their position, which included full British withdrawal from Northern Ireland by the start of 1975. Yet again, although Gerry Adams continues his denial of membership of PIRA, claiming that his involvement in the secret talks was only as a representative of the Irish Republican movement, the PIRA Chief of Staff at the time said, in a BBC documentary about the IRA, that everyone on the delegation was PIRA. When asked if this included Gerry Adams he said that it did.
This photo of a 1972 PIRA press conference shows four members of the delegation that went to London and gives you some indication of the circles within which Gerry Adams was moving. From the left: A young Martin McGuinness, the commander of PIRA’s Derry Brigade, who would several years later become OC of Northern Command and the Chief of Staff; PIRA Adjutant General and political strategist Daithi O Connail; Chief of Staff Sean MacStiofain; Belfast Brigade Commander Seamus Twomey.
This is a picture of Ivor Bell, another member of the PIRA delegation to London. Bell was a leading player in PIRA’s Belfast Brigade and insisted that the release Gerry Adams from Long Kesh prison, was one of the preconditions for the 1972 ceasefire. Bell would eventually become a member of the PIRA Army Council, briefly its Chief of Staff in the early 1980s and also, in a turn of events, an opponent of Gerry Adams.
This is a picture of Brendan Hughes with his friend and Comrade Gerry Adams in happier times as prisoners inside Long Kesh. Hughes, even before this, had a fearsome reputation and figured highly on police / army wanted lists.
Twelve days after the start of the ceasefire commenced it ended when a dispute between Protestant and Catholics in the Lenadoon area of Belfast, fuelled and exploited by extremists on both sides, with the British army stuck in the middle, descended into rioting and then gunfire from PIRA. Brendan Hughes, along with two other PIRA members, were the gunmen involved in the shooting incident that day, acting under orders from PIRA’s Belfast Commander Seamus Twomey. Twomey was a leading player in the Lenadoon dispute and it would not be unreasonable to suppose that the stand-off was viewed by PIRA as an opportunity to end the ceasefire, whilst blaming others. A theme that runs through PIRA’s history is that they shift the blame for everything onto someone else, completely ignoring their own responsibility. It is a script that terrorists around the world follow and every script is just a variation on the same theme. They play the role of victims, but to do so, they need to assign the role of aggressor and/or oppressor onto others.
It is debatable whether PIRA had entered into the secret talks with the intent of compromise and a deal, but I would suggest it unlikely. From PIRA’s perspective, they were in the ascendancy and they felt that victory was achievable. They would have seen the imposition of direct rule earlier in the year as a victory over Unionism and Stormont and rightly or wrongly, this move by the British had sent PIRA a signal that one final push would be all it would take to force British withdrawal. The hardliners within the PIRA leadership therefore felt no need to compromise and with the end of the ceasefire, a plan to explode multiple car bombs in Belfast was put into play.
The operational commander for what became known as Bloody Friday, was Brendan Hughes. Whilst he was not responsible for the creation of the plan, it was his job to implement it, using a number of teams to construct the bombs and PIRA members, or ‘volunteers’, from the three Belfast battalions, to transport the bombs to their civilian targets. Hughes would later state that he hadn’t intended killing anyone, but he also said, “And I knew… that there was going to be casualties. It was a major, major operation, but we never intended to kill anyone that day.”
I would suggest that if you are involved in leaving over twenty bombs in Belfast, all due to detonate in public places within eighty minutes, and you have accepted that there will be casualties, then you also knew some of there casualties may be civilian fatalities. Saying otherwise was simply reluctance to accept foreknowledge of what would likely happen. Hughes’ regret and guilt, decades later, may have been genuine, but I do not believe PIRA acted without knowing civilians would probably die. Bloody Friday was intended to shock the British. It was part of the final push. Civilian deaths and injuries, was part of the price for victory. A means to an end.
PIRA knew only too well about the risks to civilians from bomb attacks, but this did not deter them. I would contend that what occurred on Bloody Friday was not a mistake, it was intentional. Bloody Friday was the continuance of a PIRA strategy of terror, against the civilian population. The propaganda template had already been created. They would blame the actions of the security forces for civilian casualties. The same would happen again following Bloody Friday, even suggesting that it was a British strategy to allow civilians casualties, despite PIRA warnings.
Whilst Hughes was operational commander for the wave of bombs, during his taped testimony for Boston College, he made it clear that it was not solely his responsibility. He said the entire Belfast Brigade staff planned and approved the bombings. That included Seamus Twomey the Brigade Commander, his Adjutant Gerry Adams and the Brigade Operations Officer, Ivor Bell. Hughes went on to say that whilst Twomey was the Brigade Commander, in effect, “…. Gerry was the real OC. Twomey was practically out of it by that stage, to the extent that eventually we sent him down to Dublin. Gerry was always the OC. Even if he was not OC in name, Gerry was the man who made the decisions.”
Hughes would go to his grave, feeling bitter and betrayed, by PIRA and his former friend Gerry Adams, for taking the organisation down the political road and, as he saw it, selling out the cause for which he had fought, served time in prison and ruined his health on hunger strike. He also expressed anger that Gerry Adams claimed to have never been a member of PIRA, therefore leaving the likes of Hughes and Bell to take responsibility for violence such as Bloody Friday.
As the bombs started to explode across Belfast on that Friday afternoon, PIRA supporters in Republican areas cheered every explosion. With a mixture of so many bombs in such a short space of time, combined with hoax bomb alerts, the security forces and emergency services were stretched, possibly the intention of PIRA. This made it difficult, if not impossible to respond on time to every bomb alert. Due to the close proximity of the bombs, people were also being unknowingly evacuated from one bomb, towards another as yet unreported bomb. The horror that followed was inevitable.
The nine people murdered on Bloody Friday, 21st July 1972, were killed by bomb blasts at two of the locations; the Ulsterbus depot in Oxford Street and on the Cavehill Road.
Jackie Gibson, 45, Ulsterbus driver.
William Crothers, 15, employee of Ulsterbus
William Irvine, 18, employee of Ulsterbus
Thomas Killops, 39, employee of Ulsterbus
Stephen Cooper, 18, soldier, killed at the Ulsterbus depot whilst trying to clear the area.
Philip Price, 27, soldier, killed at the Ulsterbus depot whilst trying to clear the area.
Margaret O’Hare, 34, married mother of seven children,
killed inside her car by the Cavehill Road bomb. Margaret’s eleven year older daughter, was with her in the car and was badly injured.
Brigid Murray, 65, killed by the Cavehill Road bomb.
Stephen Parker, 14, schoolboy, killed whilst trying to warn others in near-by shops, of a car bomb he had spotted on the Cavehill Road. Stephen was identified by his father at the mortuary, by a box of trick matches that he had been carrying in his pocket, and the shirt and Scout belt that he had been wearing. Stephen was posthumously awarded the Queen’s Commendation for bravery.
Another 130 people were injured by the bombs, many of them sustaining horrific, life changing injuries.
In closing I will simply say that in my view, despite what PIRA Sinn Fein may claim, the outcome of Bloody Friday was intentional. PIRA terrorists set out to murder, maim, destroy and terrorise, and that is what they did. It was not the first time that they had employed a strategy of terror and it would not be the last time. Only ten days later, PIRA would detonate three more no-warning car bombs in the village of Claudy, near Londonderry, murdering nine civilians. Again, we are meant to believe it was unintentional, that ten days after Bloody Friday, PIRA could not foresee the risk of leaving car bombs in busy streets.
The only positive note from this horror is that the PIRA strategy of terror against civilian targets, designed to be the final push against the British, was probably the beginning of the end for PIRA. The unintended consequence of PIRA’s actions, was to provoke a feeling of revulsion amongst the majority of Protestant and Catholics that ensured PIRA could not achieve the level of support they had hoped for.
The tragedy is that it would take another quarter of a century for PIRA to finally accept ‘physical force’ Republicanism was the road to nowhere. They of course, would spin that rather differently.
Whether Gerry Adams was ever in PIRA, is for others to decide. Is he telling the truth, or is his version of events, his own reimagined past? Is the Gerry Adams of today, a Disneyfied, theme park, family friendly version of Gerry Adams? That dear reader, is for you to decide.
This article is reproduced with the kind permission of Umbra Voices and has been edited by Colin Crosss. It is part of an ongoing series.
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