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Manchester bomb 1996
1996: down but not out

Manchester bomb: no justice

The IRA attack on Manchester in June 1996 was the biggest mainland bomb in Britain and caused massive devastation to the city centre. Now an IRA expert claims that the bombers will never stand trial:

15 June 1996: a sunny morning in Manchester. Saturday shoppers were filling Market Street and the Arndale Centre buying Father's Day presents. The country was hosting Euro '96 and the nation was gripped with football fever.

Then, at 09:43, came the first warning. It was coded message: 'You've got one hour to clear the city centre.' The IRA had packed 3,000 lbs of explosives into a lorry parked on Corporation Street.

When the bomb went off, it exploded at 2,000 feet per second. The sheer power of the blast shattered the city centre around Marks and Spencer and the Arndale shopping centre.

Professor Richard English
Professor Richard English

Thanks to a massive operation to evacuate the city centre, no-one was killed although, 200 people were injured, some seriously, mostly by flying glass and debris.

Greater Manchester Police and the Anti Terrorist Squad launched a massive investigation called Operation Cannon to find the bombers. Information flooded in to the incident room which eventually traced the movements of the lorry.

At one stage a report was even sent to the Crown Prosecution Service seeking advice on if they could arrest a suspect. Yet, despite a huge search and a million pound reward, nobody has ever been arrested for the bombing.

audio Interview: Professor Richard English >
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Professor Richard English of Queen's University in Belfast has studied the activities of the IRA for a number of years and wrote the book 'Armed Struggle - The History Of The IRA.'

He says it's known who carried out the attack and spoke to Inside Out's Andy Johnson:

What was the IRA's reasoning at the time for a massive bomb attack on the mainland?

"The Manchester bombing happened between ceasefires. The IRA had had a ceasefire between ’94 and ’96, and in their justification for the Manchester bombing, they said that the British government had effectively squandered their first ceasefire, and instead of pursuing talks had been pursuing IRA defeat and the surrender of IRA weapons. So what they were doing with the Manchester bomb was saying “We can still return to war if we want to. We can still put off a huge bomb in your cities and devastate them and therefore you have to deal with us. Get in to talks, try and resolve this.”

But why Manchester?

"The choice of the city itself was partly based on long-standing IRA thinking that bombs in England have always created far more attention at a political and public level in the UK than they have in Northern Ireland. For a long time, the IRA were aware that even if they kill a police officer in Belfast, it created far less of a ripple than if they pulled off bomb attacks in London or Manchester. So there was a sense that they would get more of a result for this kind of bombing, even though there were no fatalities, than they would for things in Northern Ireland."

No-one was killed. Was that the intention of the bombers?

"Given the scale of the bombing which was huge, it was extraordinary that no-one was killed. Much smaller bombings in Britain had caused fatalities and one of the immediate reactions in Northern Ireland was to be amazed by this. You would also have to say that the people who planted the bomb would not have been surprised had there been fatalities ie the fact that no-one was killed was not something that was built in, in a fool-proof way into this scheme."

What do you know about the investigation into the bombing?

"One of the strange things about many incidents in the Northern Ireland troubles has been that while informally, quite a lot of people know who is responsible for certain actions, in a formal sense, convictions have not been pursued. That is the same with the Manchester bomb of 1996.

"Broadly speaking, it’s known which unit of the IRA produced this bomb. Some of the names of those involved are known, but they have not been brought to justice. There are two explanations which people have offered for that: one is that the kind of acquisition of informal evidence that you can pursue as a journalist, or as a commentator is one thing, but getting people to tell you on the record the kind of things they’ll tell you off the record is different for obvious reasons in a place like Northern Ireland.

"The other explanation, I think is slightly more complicated, and it’s this. During the peace process period the British government and the British authorities were keen, above all that the IRA shift from something like war to something like peace. In the process of doing that, getting into a second ceasefire from ’97 onwards, with Sinn Fein, the politicians becoming more important than the IRA, there was a desire not to rock the boat.

So it's all about keeping the peace process on track...

"Prisoners were released after the Good Friday agreement, people who had often done murderous and appalling things. There was a sense that you could almost forget the past atrocities if the future was going to see Republicans be political, rather than being violent. That’s not to say people wouldn’t want to pursue a conviction, but for example, under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, if the people who had carried out this bombing were prosecuted then they would be eligible for release fairly quickly anyway. In other words, there’s a sense that there’s something like an amnesty for IRA actions has informally been accepted in Northern Ireland. In that context, there’s no real urgency to try and reach prosecutions for things like this, to reach convictions, because it’s almost as if you’ve put a line through what happened in the past in order to reach hopefully a more peaceful present."

A few years ago, the Manchester Evening News named the person they believe is responsible... why wasn't he arrested?

"I think the reaction of people who've been on the receiving end of a bombing on your own city, are entirely understandable. "People think: why on earth if we know who did this have they not been put in prison? Why on earth are the police not doing eveything they can to catch these people?" I think what often happens is that there is a political context for police actions when dealing with terrorists...

"And in the context of the peace process, there is almost a sense that you've taken the foot off the pedal with prosecutions because the phase of struggle has moved into a different area. So becasue the IRA are not bombing London and Manchester now, there is less urgency in finding those who bombed Manchester and London in the past."

Yet GMP have told us that it's an ongoing investigation...

The standard police answer when you ask “Why have you not done more? Why have you not done this?” is to say “We can’t comment, it’s an ongoing investigation.” And there may be something in that. On the other hand it’s also true that, in many cases, and I think the Manchester bomb is one of them, in many cases concerning Northern Ireland troubles, concerning IRA bombings, there does seem to be a lot more intelligence out there about who did what, about when they did it, even evidence of CCTV footage sometimes of people going to and from the events of vans and lorries being hired and so on, than the police seem to have acted upon. And one suspects that, if, for example, this had been an Islamist bomb on Manchester last year, rather an IRA bomb in Manchester ten years ago, perhaps greater urgency would have been shown in following up those leads."

What can you tell us about those who are believed to be responsible?

"The Manchester bomb was made by the IRA's South Armagh Brigade and they were expert in making bombs, they’ve made some of the big English bombs, the Canary Wharf bomb in February 1996 for example, and they had considerable expertise in producing bombs like that.

"The same unit in South Armagh itself had also engaged in sniping operations against British soldiers, had killed a number of British soliders, but for the most part, people don’t now remember those soldiers who were shot in South Armagh by that same unit. What they do remember are bombs that went off in Manchester.

The scale of the bombing was striking in the sense that this was the biggest of the IRA’s bombs and one thing that they wanted to demonstrate was that there was still a lot of life in their capacity, that they still had the military capacity, if you like, to up their campaign if necessary. And in that sense the biggest bomb coming in 1996 was a way of saying: “We’re not dwindling away, we’re not being defeated, we’re not on our last legs. If necessary, we can even move up a gear. And this is what Manchester was saying.”

Do you think we'll ever see anyone charged for the Manchester bomb?

"I think it's very unlikely that you'll see convictions for the Manchester bomb of 1996. Partly because, with most of the killings of the Northern Ireland troubles, people have not been brought to trial and convicted. For most of the murders in the troubles, more is known about who carried them out, than has been followed through in court. So, for the Manchester bomb, though more sharp to people in Manchester, is part of a broader pattern ie that people carried out appalling acts for political reasons, and largely speaking, they weren't convicted for doing so. Now that Northern Ireland has moved to something like a post-conflict situation... the imperative to pursue convictions for bombings is less pressing."

This interview with Professor English was conducted for a special programme on the bomb for BBC Inside Out in the North West on Monday 27 February 2006

last updated: 15/06/06
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