Sinn Fein sadness at Bank Buildings fire, yet IRA tried to destroy it in 1975

The Sinn Fein lord mayor of Belfast and other senior party colleagues have expressed sadness at the devastation of the Bank Buildings, something which was caused by what appears to have been an accidental fire.

Wednesday, 29th August 2018, 5:20 pm
Updated Monday, 3rd September 2018, 12:16 pm

Yet 43 years ago, the IRA deliberately attempted to destroy the much-loved landmark building in almost precisely the manner which led to its ruin on Tuesday – a fire started in the upper floors.

The IRA only failed in its objective due to the bravery of firemen who moved in to tackle the inferno, despite IRA claims that there were further bombs in the building.

The three bombs exploded at rush hour on another Tuesday – April 8 1975 – in what was then the House of Fraser department store.

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How the News Letter reported the inferno in April 1975

The following day, the News Letter reported on its front page that “flames and smoke leapt high in the sky, and were visible over a wide area of the city”, with damage estimated to total at least £1 million. While the blaze itself did not injure anyone directly, one woman had a heart attack amidst the commotion.

The blaze began in the upper floors of the historic building and spread to the top two floors of Commonwealth House. Some 50 firemen, under the command of chief fire officer George Morrison, used six pumps, a hydraulic platform and a turntable ladder to save the building.

This newspaper reported that the firemen were prevented from dealing with the fires in the early stages because of an IRA claim that there were additional bombs in the building.

Eventually – and despite the IRA having claimed in a call to UTV that there were six 20lb bombs in the building, just three of which had exploded at that stage – the firemen pressed ahead with tackling the blaze.

The Bank Buildings fire raged through most of Tuesday

The initial bomb warning was received at 5pm and although the authorities acted immediately to clear surrounding buildings, this was done “just in time” before the first explosion at 5.20pm, followed by two further blasts in quick succession.

The IRA claimed responsibility for the bombing in a statement which said the attack was “in retaliation for continued Army harassment of Catholics”.

A fire officer said of the blaze: “It was one of the worst we have had in the city in recent months. Unfortunately, due to the risk of explosions, we were delayed almost three-quarters of an hour. By that time the fire had a firm hold on the upper floors of the buildings.”

In a remarkably matter of fact final sentence, the News Letter reported the comments of the firm’s managing director, Victor Henry: “Mr Henry said it would be ‘business as usual’ this morning in spite of the damage. He apologised to the public for the disorganisation.”

The Belfast Telegraph reported that the first bomb had exploded in the restaurant on the second floor and the bombs damaged the second, third and fourth floors of the building. Army bomb experts had to examine the scene the following morning out of continued concern that there may be further IRA bombs.

The following day, the News Letter reported that Sir Fred Fraser had given the 230 employees “a firm guarantee” that their jobs would be safe.

Store manager Victor Henry was quoted as saying: “From the minute the bombs went off, we were determined to open for business today.”

The day after the attack, the then Belfast Telegraph reporter Wendy Austin – who would go on to become one of BBC Northern Ireland’s most prominent presenters – reported that Sir Hugh Fraser, the owner of House of Fraser, had flown from Scotland to Belfast by helicopter to see the devastation for himself.

The article said that when the businessman arrived at the city centre store “he found it bustling with customers – despite the fact that the fire had damaged about one-third of the building”.

The report said that the store closed for a half day at 1pm “to allow staff to continue with the massive mopping up operation”.

The Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast, Deirdre Hargey, said that after Tuesday’s fire the building was a scene of “devastation”, adding: “Obviously our priority at the moment is trying to retain the historic integrity of the facade of the building.”

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill said she was sad to see the destruction of the building.