The Provisional IRA’s mainland campaign

mainland campaign

The aftermath of an IRA bomb in London, March 1973

The violence, death and suffering of the Troubles was not confined to Northern Ireland. In the 1970s the Irish Republican Army (IRA) initiated a campaign of terrorist violence in England, bombing a number of military and civilian targets there. From a Provisional IRA perspective the mainland campaign, as it was dubbed, had several objectives. Shifting some of the paramilitary violence of the Troubles offshore reduced the dangers to Irish civilians and IRA volunteers. It also exported some of the suffering felt in Northern Ireland to the English heartland. Like most political terrorism, the mainland campaign was also designed to make the British people feel unsafe, to create a climate of fear and generate public and media pressure on the British government. For this reason the Provisional IRA often targeted high profile events or locations, including the Houses of Parliament, 10 Downing Street, Oxford Street, Harrod’s department store and military ceremonies in Hyde Park and Regent’s Park. Republican volunteers also assassinated prominent British figures, including Lord Louis Mountbatten and Conservative politicians Airey Neave and Ian Gow. In sum, the Provisional IRA’s mainland campaign claimed the lives of 175 people, injured more than 10,000 and caused property damage exceeding one billion pounds.

There was some historical precedent for the mainland campaign. In the 1930s a group of militant radicals gained control of the IRA Army Council. In January 1939 they issued a brief ultimatum to the British government, demanding the withdrawal of all British military personnel from Ireland. When this ultimatum was ignored it was followed with a declaration of war. The IRA then initiated its S-Plan, an operation to sabotage infrastructure using stolen and improvised explosives. Between January and December 1939 IRA cells planted a total of 290 bombs in England. The S-Plan sought to create disruption and panic rather than deaths or civilian casualties. As a consequence the bombers targeted electricity stations, railway stations, communications infrastructure, roads, bridges and government buildings. The campaign was wound back in August 1939, after an IRA bomb, intended for an electricity station, exploded in a Coventry shopping street and killed five civilians. This incident caused widespread outrage and a peak in anti-Irish sentiment. It later emerged that IRA commanders were also in contact with agents from Nazi Germany and that S-Plan had the backing of the Abwehr, a German military intelligence agency.

mainland campaign

The Aldershot officers’ mess, bombed by the Official IRA in 1972

In the context of the Troubles, the first significant attack on English soil was carried out by the Official IRA in retaliation for Bloody Sunday. On February 22nd 1972, three weeks after the shootings in Derry, Official IRA volunteers drove an explosive-packed car into an unsecured army base in Aldershot, 40 miles southwest of London. The car bomb was detonated next to an officers’ mess – however no officers were nearby and the blast killed seven civilian workers, including five women and a Catholic priest. This was a political disaster for the Official IRA, which three months later wound back its military campaign. However its factional offshoot, the Provisional IRA, had no qualms about attacking targets in England – even if these attacks caused incidental civilian casualties. In early 1973 the Provisional IRA sent 11 volunteers to operate undercover in London; they included future Sinn Fein minister Gerry Kelly and sisters Dolours and Marian Price. On March 8th they planted four car bombs around the city. Two of these exploded, one outside the Old Bailey law courts, the other at a government building in Whitehall. The blasts killed one person and injured more than 180 others. The perpetrators were arrested while attempting to return to Ireland, charged with terrorism offences and given life sentences.

“On November 7th 1974 two people were fatally injured by an IRA bomb at a crowded pub, close to the Royal Artillery Training Centre in Woolwich, London. There were pools of blood in the King’s Arms after the blast. Again, there had been no warning. Ten days later, the Provisionals’ Daithi O’Connell tried to set out the organisation’s thinking, declaring that ‘the consequences of war are not going to be kept solely in Ireland. They are going to be felt on the mainland of Britain. Responsibility rests squarely and clearly with the British government. The whole situation can be changed. The British government have simply to say we are not going to stay in Ireland, we are going to disengage from Ireland. They hold the key, the keys of war’.”
Richard English, historian

By early 1974 the Provisional IRA was planning more attacks in England. There were several factors behind this decision. In 1971 the Army Council believed its armed insurgency in Northern Ireland would drive out the British within three years. But the Provisional IRA underestimated the political resolve of the British government and its commitment to remain in Northern Ireland. The mainland campaign was implemented to increase the pressure on Westminster, by generating a climate of fear among the British public. It would also expose the British people to the realities in Northern Ireland – or as one IRA volunteer put it, “to give the Brits a taste of the Troubles”. The mainland campaign was also a product of the IRA’s reduced capacity in Northern Ireland. By late 1973 British security forces – the British Army, the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) – held the upper hand in the Six Counties. With these forces now stronger in number, supplied with better intelligence and alert to IRA tactics, the ‘Provos’ found attacking British targets a more difficult proposition. Provisional IRA numbers had also been depleted by deaths, defections and arrests, while stockpiles of weapons and munitions were shrinking. Provisional IRA commanders began to look for ‘soft’ targets with less risk but greater political significance.

Most IRA attacks on the mainland came in the form of explosive-packed vehicles. When these bombs were planted in areas frequented by civilians, Provisional IRA volunteers often telephoned through prior warnings, giving police some time to clear the area. The warnings were not always effective, however – some were received just minutes before detonation, while others (such as in the Birmingham pub bombings) did not give exact locations. The IRA’s use of telephone warnings also gave rise to thousands of hoax warnings, some of which were carried out by Provisional IRA itself. Some of the more significant attacks of the mainland campaign include:

mainland campaign

The remains of the coach bombed by the IRA while on the M62 motorway

The M62 Coach Bombing. On February 4th 1974 the Provisional IRA detonated a small bomb on a coach (bus) travelling on the M62 motorway. The coach was carrying off duty British soldiers and family members from Manchester to military bases in the north-east of England. They were unaware that a medium-sized bomb had been placed in the luggage hold by an unknown IRA volunteer. The bomb exploded near Hartshead, Yorkshire shortly after midnight, as most onboard the coach slept. The blast tore the coach apart and killed 12 people, including nine soldiers and two children aged five and two. At the time the M62 coach bombing was the deadliest IRA attack on mainland Britain. It outraged the British public, the media and the government, which rushed through anti-terrorism laws allowing the detention and deportation of suspected IRA volunteers. To date, no person has been successfully brought to justice for the M62 bombing. Judith Ward, an English woman with a history of mental illness, confessed in 1974 and was imprisoned for 18 years – however she was released in 1992 after an appeal found her conviction to be unsafe.

The London bombings. On June 17th 1974 a Provisional IRA bomb exploded in Westminster Hall in the Houses of Parliament, rupturing a gas pipe and starting a fire. An IRA volunteer telephoned through a warning six minutes before the bomb exploded, allowing the area to be cleared; as a consequence nobody was killed, though 11 people were seriously injured. Exactly one month later the IRA detonated two bombs in London. The first exploded near a government building in Balham, shortly before dawn; there was considerable property damage but nobody was injured. Later in the day a bomb exploded at the Tower of London, in an exhibition room filled with tourists. One person was killed and 40 others were injured, some losing limbs. These bombings led to increased security and surveillance at London landmarks, as well as an overhaul of police, emergency and bomb disposal protocols. The Provisional IRA continued to hit high profile targets in 1975, bombing Oxford Street (August 28th, seven injured), the London Hilton (September 5th, two killed and 63 injured) and Connaught Square (November 3rd, three injured).

mainland campaign

Gerry Conlon, a member of the Guildford Four, after his release from prison

The Guildford and Birmingham pub bombings. Pubs, especially those frequented by off duty soldiers, became a preferred target for the Provisional IRA. On October 5th IRA volunteers detonated gelignite bombs in the Horse and Groom and Seven Stars, two pubs in Guildford, approximately 25 miles southwest of London. The first of these blasts killed five people, four of them military personnel, and injured another 65. The Guildford bombings are perhaps best remembered for the miscarriage of justice that followed. In December 1974 British police arrested 11 people, including Gerry Conlon and Paul Hill, two young men visiting London from Belfast. The ‘Guildford Four’ and the ‘Maguire Seven’, as they became known, were interrogated, charged and convicted of the Guildford bombings and handed prison sentences ranging from four years to life. An investigation in the late 1980s revealed that police had used violence and intimidation to extract confessions, as well as suppressing crucial evidence. Conlon, Hill and others still in prison were released in 1989, having served 15 years for a crime they did not commit. Conlon’s father, Patrick ‘Giuseppe’ Conlon, died in prison, five years after being wrongfully convicted. These events were given international attention in the motion picture In the Name of the Father, starring Daniel Day Lewis as Conlon.

mainland campaign

The interior of the Mulberry Bush pub in Birmingham after the 1974 bombing

As police were hunting the perpetrators of the Guildford bombings there was an even deadlier IRA attack in Birmingham, England’s second largest city. On November 21st 1974 timer-activated bombs were placed in two pubs in central Birmingham, the Mulberry Bush and the Tavern in the Town. The Mulberry Bush bomb exploded at 8.17pm, killing ten people. Ten minutes later the nearby Tavern in the Town was ripped apart by an explosion, killing a further 11 people. More than 180 people were injured, some critically. Most of the dead and wounded were civilians under the age of 30. The blasts were so powerful that they destroyed a bus driving nearby. The bombing of two inner city pubs, filled with young civilians with no military or political connections, was met with outrage. The Provisional IRA leadership denied all responsibility for the Birmingham pub bombings, suggesting that an attack on a civilian target with inadequate warning breached its operational guidelines. Subsequent investigations suggest the bombings were carried out by radicals in the lower ranks of the Provisional IRA, without the knowledge or endorsement of their commanders.

British police came under intense pressure to arrest those responsible for the Birmingham atrocity. As with the Guildford bombings this pressure led to heavy handed policing, mismanagement of evidence and a miscarriage of justice. Six Irish-born men were arrested while travelling from Birmingham to Belfast to attend an IRA funeral. The ‘Birmingham Six’, as they were later known, were detained for several days, interrogated, threatened, beaten and forced to sign confessions. Despite questionable scientific evidence and allegations of police brutality, they were charged, tried and convicted and sentenced to a total of 126 life sentences. Like the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six were wrongfully imprisoned for more than 15 years. A 1976 appeal was denied, ironically by Lord Widgery, author of the now discredited report on Bloody Sunday. In 1980 the men launched a civil action for assault against Birmingham police; this appeal was turned down by Lord Denning, who suggested that a successful civil claim would render their criminal convictions unsafe. A media campaign in the late 1980s, along with the release of the Guildford Four, saw the Birmingham Six granted a new appeal in 1991. This appeal succeeded and the Six were released and later granted several million pounds in compensation.


Mountbatten and his two grandsons, one of whom was killed alongside him

Assassinations. As well as car bombings, the Provisional IRA also carried out assassinations and assassination attempts against high profile individuals. In November 1975 gunmen shot dead Ross McWhirter outside his Middlesex home. McWhirter, a co-founder of the Guinness Book of World Records, was an outspoken critic of the IRA who had suggested the compulsory registration of all Irish people living in England. In March 1979 Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) volunteers booby trapped a car belonging to Airey Neave, a Conservative MP and adviser to Margaret Thatcher. The bomb exploded as Neave drove out of the parliament buildings in Westminster and he died shortly after. The highest profile assassination of the Troubles came five months later, when the Provisional IRA murdered Lord Louis Mountbatten. A former governor general of India, Mountbatten was an uncle of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, a distant cousin of Queen Elizabeth II and a mentor to Charles, Prince of Wales. Mountbatten was holidaying in County Sligo in the Republic of Ireland when he was killed on August 27th by a bomb hidden on his fishing boat. The blast also killed Mountbatten’s 14-year-old grandson, an elderly female passenger and a 15-year-old crew member. On the same day Mountbatten was assassinated the South Armagh division of the Provisional IRA ambushed a British Army platoon near Warrenpoint, County Down and killed 18 men – the deadliest IRA attack on British forces of the Troubles.

hyde park bombing

Men and horses lay dead after the 1982 bombing in Hyde Park

The 1980s. The Provisional IRA detonated several bombs in London in the early 1980s. In October 1981 a bomb packed with six inch nails exploded outside Chelsea Barracks. The blast and shrapnel killed two people, both civilian bystanders, and injured another 40, most of them soldiers. Two weeks later an IRA bomb was located in Wimpy’s, a popular hamburger bar on Oxford Street; a police explosives technician was attempting to defuse the bomb when it exploded, killing him instantly. One of the most devastating attacks came on July 20th 1982 when IRA bombers targeted military parades in Hyde Park and Regent’s Park. The Hyde Park shrapnel bomb exploded during the Changing of the Guard, killing four members of the Household Cavalry and seven of their horses. Two hours later a bomb hidden beneath a bandstand in Regent’s Park also exploded, killing seven members of a military band and injuring dozens of others. Both bombs were timed to detonate during the ceremonies, to ensure maximum casualties. The IRA struck again on December 17th 1983, detonating a car bomb outside popular department store Harrod’s during the Christmas shopping period. The blast killed six people (three police officers, two civilians and a journalist), injured 90 others and caused extensive damage.

brighton bombing

Damage to Margaret Thatcher’s bathroom, caused by the 1984 Brighton bomb

The Brighton Hotel bombing. On October 12th 1984 the Provisional IRA detonated a bomb at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. The hotel was hosting a Conservative Party conference, attended by prime minister Margaret Thatcher, several government ministers and dozens of parliamentarians. The bomb, comprised of gelignite detonated by an advance timer, was planted under a bathtub by an IRA volunteer almost a month before the conference. The blast killed five people – a Conservative MP, two party officials and two wives – and injured 30 more. Thatcher, the target of the bomb, was awake when it detonated shortly before 3am; her bathroom was severely damaged but she was not harmed. A large section of the Grand Hotel was destroyed; the hotel did not fully reopen until August 1986. Thatcher fronted the media the following morning and defiantly declared that “all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail”. The Provisional IRA responded by stating that “today we were unlucky, but remember, we only have to be lucky once”. Nevertheless, Thatcher’s cool and determined response to the attempt on her life won her considerable support from the British media and public. Likening the Provisional IRA’s mainland campaign to the Nazi blitz of 1940-41, Thatcher’s government remained resolute and refused to accede to IRA demands.

The Deal barracks bombing. After the Brighton hotel bombing there were no significant IRA attacks in England for five years. On September 22nd 1989 the Provisional IRA revived the mainland campaign by bombing a Royal Marines music school in Deal, Kent. The blast destroyed a three storey building, killed 11 men and injured another 21. All were ceremonial musicians and several were teenage trainees. The Provisional IRA claimed responsibility for the attack, declaring the music school to be a legitimate military target. But the murder of 11 young men with no combat or infantry training and no military role except to play music provoked outrage and condemnation. To date, nobody has been brought to justice for the bombing of the Marines barracks at Deal. Over the following year the IRA carried out attacks on military personnel in Wembley (May 1990) and Lichfield (June 1990) that killed two men. In July 1990 IRA volunteers assassinated Ian Gow, a Conservative MP who had spent years contributing to Northern Ireland policy, including a collaboration with Airey Neave.

bishopsgate bombing

Devastation caused by the massive truck bomb in Bishopsgate, London

The 1990s. The Provisional IRA continued to escalate its attacks in England during the 1990s, carrying out more than 20 bombings or sabotage operations. In February 1991 volunteers launched three mortars at 10 Downing Street, the official residence of prime minister John Major; the mortars were ill directed and caused some property damage but no serious injuries. The explosion of a truck bomb outside the Baltic Exchange in London in April 1992 killed three people, including a 15-year-old girl. Two children were killed by IRA bombings on Warrington in March 1993. Two civilians died when a bomb exploded in South Quay, London in February 1996. The IRA also detonated two massive bombs: one in Bishopsgate, London (April 1993) and another in Manchester (June 1996). Both bombs were carried in trucks and contained between 1,000 and 1,500 kilograms of explosives. In both cases advance phone warnings allowed police to clear the area and minimise casualties, and only one person was killed. The damage to property was enormous, however, with several buildings utterly destroyed and the clean-up and restoration bill exceeding one billion pounds.

provisional ira
1. The mainland campaign was a series of Provisional IRA bombings and attacks carried out on targets in England.
2. The first attack came in 1972, when the Official IRA bombed an Aldershot army base in retaliation for bloody Sunday.
3. In 1973 the Provisionals sent 11 operatives to detonate several car bombs in London. They were later captured.
4. Attacks escalated in 1974, after the Provisional IRA’s actions in Northern Ireland failed to force a British withdrawal.
5. For more than two decades England was subjected to dozens of Provisional IRA operations. They included attacks on military bases and personnel, the bombing of shopping precincts, the assassination or attempted assassination of political figures and sabotage of infrastructure. These attacks claimed a total of 175 lives.

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This page was written by Rebekah Poole and Jennifer Llewellyn. To reference this page, use the following citation:
R. Poole and J. Llewellyn, “The Provisional IRA’s mainland campaign”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],