The IRA’s mainland campaign

mainland campaign
The aftermath of an IRA bombing in the Docklands area of London, 1996

The violence of the Troubles was not confined to Northern Ireland. In the 1970s, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) began bombing selected targets in England. This strategy became known as the ‘mainland campaign’. These attacks had political and military objectives, however, the bombing of British cities and the killing of civilians proved controversial. Historians and commentators remain divided about whether the mainland campaign was necessary or effective.

Objectives

The Provisional IRA’s mainland campaign had several objectives. It exported the sufferings of the Troubles to the English heartland, providing some respite for Northern Irelanders. By making Britons feel unsafe, the Provisional IRA hoped to increase public and media pressure on the British government. Most attacks in England hit military targets or high profile locations, such as the Houses of Parliament, 10 Downing Street, Oxford Street, Harrod’s, Hyde Park and Regent’s Park.

mainland campaign
The aftermath of an IRA bomb in London, March 1973

Republican volunteers also assassinated prominent British figures, most notably 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.

Historical IRA terrorism

The mainland campaign had historical precedents dating back generations. As early as the 1880s, Irish Republicans dubbed ‘Fenians’ bombed several targets across Britain, including the Houses of Parliament.

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. Their ultimatum was ignored and IRA leaders responded with a declaration of war.

The militants responded by initiating their S-Plan: an operation to sabotage English infrastructure with 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, panic and fear rather than deaths or casualties. 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, killing five civilians. This bombing caused widespread outrage and growth in anti-Irish sentiment. It later emerged that IRA commanders were in contact with Nazi agents and that S-Plan had the backing of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence agency.

Response to ‘Bloody Sunday’

The first significant attack on English soil during the Troubles was carried out by the Official IRA, a direct act of retaliation for the shooting of Derry civilians on Bloody Sunday.

On February 22nd 1972, three weeks after the shootings in Derry, Official IRA volunteers drove an explosives-laden car into an unsecured army base in Aldershot, 40 miles southwest of London. The bomb was detonated next to an officers’ mess. No officers were nearby, however, and the blast killed seven civilian workers: five women, an elderly gardener and a Catholic chaplain.

These civilian deaths were a political disaster for the Official IRA, which wound back its military campaign three months later.

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

The Provisionals’ campaign

The more radical Provisional IRA had no qualms about attacking targets in England. It was also less concerned with incidental civilian casualties, pointing out that these were also occurring in Northern Ireland.

In early 1973, the Provisional IRA sent 11 volunteers to operate undercover in London; this group included future Sinn Fein minister Gerry Kelly and sisters Dolours and Marian Price. On March 8th, these operatives planted four car bombs around the city. Two of the four bombs 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. Arrested while seeking to return to Ireland, the perpetrators were convicted and given lengthy prison sentences.

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 an armed insurgency would drive the British from Northern Ireland within three years. They underestimated the political resolve of the British government, however, which was still holding firm at the start of 1974.

Motives and strategies

The mainland campaign aimed to increase pressure on Westminster by creating a climate of fear among ordinary Britons. It also exposed British civilians to the painful realities of Northern Ireland (as one IRA volunteer put it, “give the Brits a taste of the Troubles”). 

Another factor was the IRA’s increasing ineffectiveness within Northern Ireland. By late 1973, British security forces held the upper hand in the Six Counties. The British Army, the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) were stronger in number, armed with better intelligence and alert to IRA tactics. Because of this, the Provisionals found attacking British military targets a more difficult proposition.

Provisional IRA numbers had also been depleted by deaths, defections and arrests, while the group’s weapons and munitions stockpiles were shrinking. This forced IRA commanders to look for ‘softer’ targets.

Most of the Provisional IRA’s mainland attacks were carried out using explosive-packed vehicles. These car bombs were dumped near military targets, government buildings, infrastructure or significant property. When planted in areas frequented by civilians, Provisional IRA volunteers usually telephoned through warnings, giving police some time to clear the area before the bomb detonated.

These warnings were not always effective. Some were not received by relevant authorities until just minutes before detonation, while others (such as the Birmingham pub bombs of November 1974) failed to give exact locations. The IRA’s use of telephone warnings also gave rise to thousands of hoax warnings, some made by the Provisional IRA itself. It was usually impossible for authorities to know which warnings were genuine and which were false alarms. Some of the more significant attacks of the mainland campaign include:

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, travelling from Manchester to military bases in England’s north-east. Unbeknownst to those onboard, a medium-sized bomb had been placed in the luggage hold by an 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. It was, at the time, the deadliest IRA attack on British soil. The M62 bombing outraged the British public, the media and the government, which rushed through anti-terrorism laws allowing the detention and deportation of suspected IRA members.

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

No person was 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. She was released in 1992 after an appeals court found her conviction 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. The warning meant that 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).

The ‘Guildford Four’

Pubs frequented by soldiers were another preferred target for the Provisional IRA. On October 5th 1974 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 notorious 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. They were handed prison sentences ranging from four years to life.

An investigation in the late 1980s revealed 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. Their stories were depicted in the film In the Name of the Father, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Conlon.

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

The Birmingham bombing

As police hunted the perpetrators of the Guildford bombing, an even deadlier IRA attack occurred in Birmingham, England’s second-largest city. On November 21st 1974 timer-activated bombs were placed in two central Birmingham pubs, 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 they destroyed a bus driving nearby.

The bombing of two inner-city pubs, packed with young civilians unconnected with the military, was met with outrage. The Provisional IRA leadership denied all responsibility for the Birmingham pub bombings, claiming that an attack on a civilian target with inadequate warning breached its operational guidelines. Subsequent investigations suggested the Birmingham bombings were carried out by radicals in the lower ranks of the Provisional IRA, without the knowledge or endorsement of their commanders.

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

The ‘Birmingham Six’

As with Guildford, British police came under intense pressure to bring the Birmingham bombers to justice. 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 the six were charged, 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 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 a successful civil claim would render the criminal convictions unsafe.

A media campaign in the late 1980s, followed by the release of the Guildford Four, saw the Birmingham Six granted a new appeal in 1991. The six men were eventually released and later received several million pounds in compensation.

Assassinations

As well as car bombings, the Provisional IRA 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. At one point he 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 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.

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

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.

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 left 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 Provisional IRA’s most devastating attacks came on July 20th 1982 when its 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 concealed 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 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 property damage.

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, built with 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 3 am. Her bathroom was severely damaged but she was not harmed. A large section of the Grand Hotel was destroyed. It would not fully reopen until August 1986.

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

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 – you have to be lucky all the time”.

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, killing 11 men and injuring another 21. All were ceremonial musicians and several were teenage trainees.

The Provisional IRA claimed responsibility for the attack, declaring the music school a legitimate military target. 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 embraced a hard line on Northern Ireland, routinely attacking the Provisional IRA in parliament and the media.

bishopsgate bombing
Devastation caused by the massive truck bomb in Bishopsgate, London

The 1990s

The Provisional IRA continued 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 young boys were killed by IRA bombs in a Warrington street in March 1993, an event that inspired the Cranberries song Zombie. The following month, IRA agents detonated a one-tonne ammonium nitrate bomb, concealed in a tipper truck, in Bishopsgate, London’s financial precinct; this blast killed one person and caused more than £300 in property damage.

The Provisional IRA declared a ceasefire in August 1994 but restarted hostilities 18 months later, following Sinn Fein’s expulsion from ongoing peace talks. In February 1996, two civilians died when another IRA truck bomb exploded at Canary Wharf, a financial hub in London’s Docklands. The IRA detonated another truck bomb in Manchester’s Corporation Street in June 1996.

The Docklands and Manchester bombs contained up to 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. Several buildings were utterly destroyed and the cleanup and restoration bill from the two 1996 truck bombs would approach £1 billion.

ira mainland campaign key points

1. The mainland campaign was a series of Provisional IRA bombings and attacks, carried out on targets in England. It was designed to create fear and political pressure there.

2. The first significant attack in England was by the Official IRA in February 1972, in retaliation for Bloody Sunday. This proved disastrous, killing only civilian employees.

3. In 1973 the Provisional IRA sent 11 agents to detonate several car bombs in London. They were later captured. Their attacks escalated with several pub bombings in 1974.

4. The mainland campaign would claim 175 lives and included bomb attacks on military bases and shopping areas, assassinations of political figures and acts of sabotage.

5. The last significant attacks occurred in 1996, after the collapse of the 1994 ceasefire, when IRA agents detonated two large truck bombs in London and Manchester.

Citation information
Title: “The Provisional IRA’s mainland campaign”
Authors: Rebekah Poole, Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
URL: https://alphahistory.com/ira-mainland-campaign/
Date published: July 20, 2020
Date accessed: January 16, 2021
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