On a Friday afternoon in the summer of 1972, the Provisional IRA exploded 19 bombs across Belfast in little over an hour.
Nine people were killed and 130 injured. The dead included four teenagers. The youngest victim was a 14 year-old schoolboy, the oldest was a 68 year-old woman.
The British government responded by authorising Operation Motorman, a major military operation to take back republican 'no go areas' in towns across Northern Ireland.
Photo: Emergency service workers at the scene of an explosion in Oxford Street bus station in the heart of Belfast (Press Association)
Political and sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland are heightened in the summer of 1972.
As everyday life continues in the summer of 1972, the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Defence Association are rapidly growing paramilitary forces.
A Provisional IRA ceasefire ends after talks with the British government break down.
A Provisional Irish Republican Army ceasefire ends after secret talks with the British government break down. The organisation plans a massive car bomb attack on Belfast.
A stolen car, its boot packed with explosives, is driven towards Oxford Street Bus Station.
A stolen car, its boot packed with explosives, is driven towards Oxford Street Bus Station. The bomb explodes at 3.02pm. Survivors describe the carnage.
A hijacked car carrying a bomb is driven to the Cavehill Road shops in north Belfast.
A hijacked car carrying a bomb is driven to the Cavehill Road, a religiously mixed area in north Belfast. The bomb explodes at 3.15pm. Survivors and bereaved relatives recall the tragedy.
Hoax warnings and explosions cause mayhem and panic. The emergency services struggle to cope.
Multiple explosions bring traffic to a standstill. Emergency services struggle to cope. Amidst claims and counter claims about warnings the PIRA blame police and army for the carnage.
Background to the bombings
The period of sectarian strife in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles began in the late 1960s and quickly escalated. By 1972, the bloodiest year of the conflict, the violence between Protestants and Catholics was out of control.
The situation had been steadily worsening since 'Bloody Sunday' in January of that year, when 13 civil rights demonstrators were shot dead by the British Army in Londonderry.
Fearing a full-scale civil war, the British government under Prime Minister Edward Heath imposed 'direct rule' from London on 24 March 1972. Heath appointed his close colleague William Whitelaw as the first secretary of state for Northern Ireland.
In public, Whitelaw refused to speak to the Provisional IRA, the most prominent paramilitary organisation opposed to British rule. In private, he agreed to talks and a secret meeting took place between British officials and the IRA on 20 June 1972.
Some progress was made. Provisional IRA prisoners were given 'special status' and the IRA called a ceasefire on 26 June.
A follow-up meeting on 7 July 1972 between six IRA men and William Whitelaw himself went badly. The IRA chief of staff, Sean MacStiofain, demanded British withdrawal from Northern Ireland within three years. Whitelaw could not agree. Two days later the IRA ceasefire was ended.
The Provisional IRA now embarked on a strategic escalation of its armed campaign with the intention of bringing widespread disruption to everyday life in Northern Ireland.
The bombing begins
At around 1pm, on the afternoon of Friday 21 July 1972, the bomb disposal team in Belfast got their first call of the day. Explosives had been found underneath the Albert Bridge.
Colin Tennant, a bomb disposal officer, recalls: "While we were dealing with that, trying to clear it up, the radio started to really crackle. Then we started to get these calls in from brigade saying here's another incident, another and another."
In all, the Provisional IRA had planted 23 bombs in and around Belfast city centre.
The first explosion happened at 2.40pm outside the Ulster Bank on the Limestone Road in north Belfast.
Philip Gault was nine years old at the time. He and his mother were out shopping and had been moved away from another bomb scare. Philip leaned against the vehicle where a bomb was concealed. He was blown 10 feet into the air by the force of the blast:
"All of a sudden you’re sitting on the ground looking at a pool of blood and seeing the aftermath, the wound. Not knowing where my mother was at that stage, not knowing where anybody was. I just felt sheer panic."
Terror spread. People were fleeing one bomb, only to run into another.
The bombing lasted approximately one hour and 20 minutes, causing unprecedented chaos across the city. Security and medical resources were stretched beyond their limits.
A Royal Ulster Constabulary officer recalled a young woman and her children:
"I'm directing them down one street and of course some policeman doing his job at the bottom of the street turned them back again. I ran into them two or three times, and the terror in that young family’s eyes. They were screaming hysterically."
A definitive list
News reports in the aftermath of Bloody Friday detailed conflicting numbers of bombs and different times for the explosions. The definitive list has only recently been established.
|1.||Albert Bridge||-||Discovered at approx. 1.00pm, defused|
|2.||Limestone Road||-||Exploded 2.40pm|
|3.||Botanic Avenue||-||Exploded 2.45pm|
|4.||Star Taxis, Crumlin Road||-||Exploded 2.45pm|
|5.||Brookvale Avenue||-||Exploded 2.50pm|
|6 .||Queen Elizabeth Bridge||-||Exploded 2.55pm|
|7.||Ormeau Avenue||-||Exploded 2.57pm|
|8.||Garmoyle Street||-||Exploded 2.59pm|
|9.||Liverpool Ferry Terminal||-||Exploded 3.02pm|
|10.||M2 flyover||-||Discovered 3.02pm, failed to detonate|
|11.||Oxford Street Bus Station||-||Exploded 3.02pm|
|12.||Creighton’s Garage, Upper Lisburn Road -||Exploded 3.05pm|
|13.||Stewartstown Road||-||Exploded 3.05pm|
|14.||Finaghy Road North Railway Bridge||-||Exploded 3.05pm|
|15.||Electricity Substation, Salisbury Avenue||-||Exploded 3.05pm|
|16.||Tate’s Avenue Railway Bridge||-||Exploded 3.09pm|
|17.||York Street Station||-||Exploded 3.10pm|
|18.||Smithfield Bus Station||-||Exploded 3.10pm|
|19.||Eastwood’s Motors, Donegall Street||-||Exploded 3.12pm|
|20.||Cavehill Road shops||-||Exploded 3.15pm|
|21.||Dee Street flyover||-||Discovered 3.30pm, defused|
|22.||Great Victoria Street Station||-||Exploded 4.00pm|
|23.||NI Carriers, Grosvenor Road||-||Failed to detonate|
The greatest loss of life occurred at Oxford Street Bus Station in the centre of the city. There, a car bomb killed two soldiers and four civilians, the youngest of whom was only 15 years old.
Mutilated bodies were swept up and collected in black plastic bags, scenes that were broadcast on that evening's television news.
At 3.15pm a car bomb exploded in a busy shopping area in north Belfast’s Cavehill Road. This was a religiously mixed residential area. Two Catholic women were killed, one of whom was a mother of seven.
Another of the dead was Stephen Parker, a 14 year-old Protestant boy who was posthumously commended for bravery after warning others of the bomb that killed him. His father, Reverend Joseph Parker, identified Stephen from the box of trick matches in his pocket:
Of the 130 people injured that day, 77 were women or children. A police officer recalled:
"You could hear people screaming, crying and moaning. The first thing that caught my eye was a torso of a human being lying in the middle of the street."
Later in the day a Northern Ireland Office spokesman referred to the assault on the people of the city as ‘Bloody Friday’, the name by which it has been known ever since.
Around 150 IRA members carried out the bombings on Bloody Friday. Just three were convicted and only one served a jail term.
Reaction and consequences
The shadow of Bloody Friday
The Provisional IRA refused to accept responsibility for the atrocity and blamed the security forces for the carnage. IRA chief of staff, Sean MacStiofain, claimed that warnings had been ignored:
"It required only one man with a loud hailer to clear each target area in no time.”
But Kevin Sheehy, an RUC officer on duty that day, recalled things differently:
"The system couldn’t possibly have coped with Bloody Friday; the number of hoax bombs, the number of incidents."
On Tuesday 16 July 2002, the Provisional IRA issued a statement timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Bloody Friday in which it offered "sincere apologies and condolences" to the families of all civilian victims of IRA violence.
The horror of Bloody Friday continues to resonate.
Robert Gibson,the son of Jackie Gibson, an Ulsterbus employee who was killed at Oxford Street Bus Station, said of the bombers:
"I would quote the American playwright who said there is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people. It doesn’t matter what the flag is, it was a shameful act."