News Letter bomb anniversary: 1972 car bomb a deadly new development

MARK RAINEY reports on the 50th anniversary of the IRA bomb attack on the News Letter office that claimed seven lives
News Letter front page the day after the bomb in March 1972News Letter front page the day after the bomb in March 1972
News Letter front page the day after the bomb in March 1972

Although the IRA car bomb atrocity outside the News Letter’s office building 50 years ago has been largely forgotten, it proved to be a tipping point in the UK Government’s fight against terrorism.

Two Belfast police officers died in Donegall Street while attempting to shepherd the public to safety just before midday on March 20, 1972.

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Three Belfast Corporation bin collectors and a van driver were also killed when bomb, which was concealed inside a Ford Cortina, exploded with devastating effect.

A woman injured in the IRA bomb at the News Letter's Donegall Street office in Belfast in March 1972A woman injured in the IRA bomb at the News Letter's Donegall Street office in Belfast in March 1972
A woman injured in the IRA bomb at the News Letter's Donegall Street office in Belfast in March 1972

A seventh victim who had been severely injured died two weeks later.

This new development of terrorists using large vehicle-borne explosive devices sent shockwaves across Northern Ireland and further afield.

Around 130 people, including a number of News Letter employees, were injured, many seriously.

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The attack was one of a number directed at media organisations during the Troubles which ultimately proved futile, as the News Letter, like the others that were bombed and threatened, continued to report of true horrors of the various terrorist campaigns.

Despite the extensive damage caused by the car bomb, the News Letter went to print that Monday evening, with the Tuesday headline morning stating ‘Bloody Murder’.

Just two weeks earlier another IRA bomb ripped through the Abercorn restaurant in Cornmarket claiming the lives of two young woman and maiming others.

By March 20, a total of 16 civilians, soldiers and police officers had been murdered since the start of the month, with another nine losing their lives before the month’s end.

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In just three years of Troubles violence, 1,250 officers of the 4,000-strong Royal Ulster Constabulary had been injured by terrorists, with 22 murdered.

Within days of the Donegall Street atrocity, the Westminster had introduced a ban on cars being left unattended in town and city centres, began planning for a ‘ring of steel’ security fence to be placed around Belfast and also paved the way for the introduction of a confidential telephone line for reporting terrorist activity.

As the bombings and shooting continued relentlessly, by the end of that week the UK Government had collapsed Stormont and implemented ‘direct rule’ – with William Whitelaw as NI Secretary of State.

The Donegall Street bomb was particularly deadly due to three misleading warnings being issued, between 11.29am and 11.52am, about devices having been left in nearby Church Street.

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At 11.55am, staff at the Belfast Telegraph rang 999 to report they had received a warning of a bomb placed outside the News Letter office building that was due to go off in 15 minutes.

It exploded three minutes later at 11.58am as police were attempting to clear people away from Church Street, including directing some of them towards Donegall Street.

The result was carnage.

A News Letter journalist exited the blast damaged building to report the “bleeding, twisted bodies of men and women strewn about the street”.

In the next edition, under the headline ‘Death and destruction hit busy city street,’ they wrote: “In the News Letter office the scene was of devastation.

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“Two reporters who had been looking out of the window when the bomb went off were surrounded by a pile of glass and window frames. Amazingly both sustained only superficial injuries.

“I rushed downstairs to see if I could help anyone. Some of the girls were in a really bad state, not so much from injuries but from shock.”

Once outside, the full extent of the horror became clear.

“Four men lay face down in the street. An old man was comforted on the footpath.

“As he lay, barely conscious, he was unaware that half his leg had been blown off by the explosion.

“The walking wounded help to carry the others.”

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The astonished reporter added: “Suddenly a street full of people had become a frontline battlefield. No one knew where the blast had taken place – all they knew was the tons of glass and rubble crashing round them where they fell.”

Eyewitness Frank Hagan, 58, from Carrickfergus is quoted as saying: “I saw two men. They were blown to pieces. One man was lying in the road, his head shattered.

“There was blood everywhere. I tried to bandage a few other people up.

“I have been in the army for 14 years, been through the war, but I have never seen anything like this.”

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The initial News Letter report of the carnage goes on to say: “Ambulances ferried the injured to hospital after the more seriously wounded had received treatment on the pavement.

“Torn up clothing was used for bandages and torniquets. One teenage girl with a blood-sodden face wept hysterically as she was carried to an ambulance.

“Press Association photographer Derek Brind was about 20 yards away from the bomb when it went off.

“The blast hurled him to the ground - but he carried on with his job, taking photographs of the scene and the injured.”

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The paper also carried a series of photographs of the scene across two pages – many more graphic than we would publish today.

By March 1972, the army had lost 55 soldiers in Northern Ireland with a further 481 injured since the beginning of the Troubles in 1969.

Almost 200 civilians had been killed and 2,500 injured.

That Donegall Street attack marked the beginning of a vehicle bomb campaign that would cause devastation in towns and cities across Northern Ireland, as well as several cities in Great Britain, including London.

There were 476 Troubles-related deaths in 1972.

This was the only year the total exceeded 300, although the casualty rate remained extremely high until it began to taper off from the end of 1976 onwards.

Security measures would last 23 years

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The Donegall Street bomb provoked a swift reaction from Westminster and life as we knew it would change for almost a quarter of a century.

Just days later, notices began appearing in Northern Ireland newspapers that the UK Government had introduced new emergency legislation banning anyone from leaving a vehicle unattended in city or town centres with immediate effect.

The ‘orders relating to the leaving of unattended vehicles’ created what would later become known as ‘control zones’.

The order decreed that no vehicle could be left on a list of designated roads and streets.

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A ‘confidential telephone’ line was also devised. A newspaper advertisement campaign appeared within months, urging people to report terrorist activity. The ads said: “If you have information about MURDERS of EXPLOSIONS - Ring Belfast 652155 in complete confidence.”

Plans were also being drafted for a new ‘ring of steel’ around Belfast city centre in an effort to keep out the bombers.

Several streets had permanent barriers erected while others were to remain open but with troops conducting searches on all vehicles and pedestrians entering the city centre.

Within two years a Civilian Search Unit would be established to take over most of the search duties from the army.

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Many unionists were infuriated by the UK Government’s decision to impose direct rule, just days after the Donegall Street bomb, as the violence escalated.

The move led to 10,000 workers staging a walkout of the Harland & Wolff shipyard, plans for a two-day general strike of unionist workers and a threat of mass resignations from the Ulster Defence Regiment.

Unionist fears that Northern Ireland could be prised out of the UK led to a pledge from NI Secretary William Whitelaw that there would be “no change” in their status if it meant going “against the wishes of the majority”.

At Stormont the day after the bomb, NI Prime Minister Brian Faulkner said the Abercorn explosion has shown how one terrorist bomb “could create the maximum amount of havoc,” and added: “The Donegall Street explosion illustrates something further. Again, it is a case of a concealed bomb but this time the danger is in the street and in both cases the general public is the target”.

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Another article in the same edition claimed the bomb had “around public anger and increased the clamour for blocking off the city centre.”

This Thursday (24th) the Kabosh Theatre Company will mark the ‘ring of steel’ 50th anniversary with all-day street performances where the main fences once stood.

They were eventually removed in August 1995.

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