Orange Bombs, part 1: Loyalists and explosives, the early years

In this first article for Balaclava Street we’ll take a look at loyalist paramilitary groups deadly but often overlooked use of explosive devices. The first part will take the form of a straightforward and broadly chronological history of the beginnings of militant loyalism’s relationship with explosives covering 1966 to the end of 1971. Part two will explore among other things their supply lines, technical aspects of bomb-making, the largely forgotten UVF bombing campaign in the second half of 1973, and why the UVF forgoed the use of explosives from 1977 until resuming attacks in the last two years of the conflict.

Firstly, it is important to clarify that when we discuss major loyalist bombs and bombing incidents we are referring almost exclusively to the UVF. It was they who were responsible for the overwhelming majority of loyalist bomb attacks. The much larger UDA had neither the knowledge nor resources to sustain a serious bombing campaign. Their involvement with explosives was invariably restricted to primitive pipe bombs which they used throughout the conflict. Even in the late 80s and early 90s, when they became more sophisticated in their attacks, the UDA’s attempts to bomb nationalist/republican targets were crude in the extreme. The number of high-profile bombings carried out by the UDA could be counted on one hand with fingers to spare, most occurring early on in the conflict, with the bombing of Benny’s Bar in Sailortown in October 1972 being perhaps the most notable1.

Although organised loyalist paramilitarism can be traced back to the original Ulster Volunteer Force of 1912 and perhaps even further to the activities of the Peep O’ Day Boys in the late 18th century, none of these groups made use of explosives, with Carson’s UVF organising itself on conventional military lines. Beginning with the dynamite-throwing Fenians who terrorised the British Empire from London to Toronto, to S-Plan and Operation Harvest, republicans have in contrast had a long-standing association with the use of explosives which ensured that organisational skillsets and lines of supply did not die out even during periods of inactivity between campaigns. Loyalists, having no such tradition, instead had to create one from scratch. The UVF was best placed among loyalist organisations to develop a bombing capability. Many of its members, particularly in the early days, were former British soldiers, and its senior ranks were dominated by those who had served the crown, not least Chiefs of Staff such as Gusty Spence, Bo McClelland (both Royal Ulster Rifles), and Tommy West, who had fought with the SAS in Malaya. Former soldiers had vital operational experience with explosives, but the organisation also made a point of recruiting civilians with such knowledge, such as quarrymen and shot-firers. The UVF’s stronger presence in rural areas compared to the UDA helped this process.

It was these rural contacts which led to loyalist paramilitarism’s first encounter with explosives. A key figure of this period was Noel Doherty, a printer who was involved in publishing Ian Paisley’s virulently anti-Catholic Protestant Telegraph. He was also a member of the B-Specials, Northern Ireland’s part-time and exclusively Protestant security force, and more pointedly a leader in the Ulster Protestant Volunteers, set up in 1966 as the paramilitary wing of the Ulster Constitutional Defence Committee which he had co-founded with Paisley. At a meeting in Loughgall, Co Armagh in April 1966, the 25 yr old Doherty made contact with another group of militant loyalists who were interested in joining the UPV. Among them was a native of East Antrim in his mid-20s, Billy Mitchell, who would later join the UVF and become one of its most senior members (the senior member if certain sources are to be believed). Weapons and explosives procurement was discussed at length, and in a subsequent meet-up at the farm of James Murdock of Loughgall three members of the Shankill Road UVF were put in touch with a UPV-linked quarryman who supplied them with gelignite. Murdock imprudently gave his business card to one of the men: it was found in a round-up of UVF activists later in the year and led the police to both him and Doherty. He received a £200 fine, while Doherty was sentenced to two years. Nevertheless, the UVF had had its first taste of gelignite.

"Dr" Ian Paisley in 1969

“Dr” Ian Paisley in 1969

By early 1969 the choreography for a reopening of hostilities in Ireland was complete. Reverend Ian Paisley had achieved preeminence as a fundamentalist Protestant and loyalist ultra opposing the liberal reforms of NI Prime Minister Captain Terence O’Neill. NICRA, formed in 1967 to agitate for reform in housing, elections, and employment for Catholics, was assuming a more assertively nationalist character as time went on and republicans (if not IRA members) within the movement pursued a policy of entryism. At the same time, Peoples Democracy, a radical left-wing organisation which sought to bring the tactics of direct action as practised by foreign groups such as Students For a Democratic Society to the sectarian tinderbox of Northern Ireland, engaged in coat-trailing marches through staunchly Protestant areas. Inevitably (and arguably intentionally), these in turn attracted counter-demonstrations and brutal violence from loyalists, including Paisley’s UPV and off-duty members of the B Specials, which brought the long-standing issue of discrimination in Northern Ireland to the pages of British newspapers for the first time.

It was against this backdrop that a UPV/UVF conglomerate launched the first major loyalist bomb campaign. Following the resignation of two cabinet ministers, Terence O’Neill announced a surprise election for the 24th February 1969. O’Neill was returned to power, but as the leader of a fragmented unionist movement and only two-thirds support. Ian Paisley and his disciple Major Ronald Bunting2 were jailed at the end of March for organising an illegal demonstration. Five days later, four bombs exploded at an electrical substation in Castlereagh on the outskirts of Belfast causing £500,000 worth of damage. The blasts coincided with a crucial Unionist Party standing committee to discuss the leadership of O’Neill. Widespread opinion held the IRA responsible for the explosions. Indeed, Paisley’s Protestant Telegraph reported on the 5th of April:

“this is the first act of sabotage perpertrated by the IRA since the murderous campaign of 1956…suggestions have been made that an IRA splinter group – Saor Uladh – was responsible for the blast, but the sheer professionalism of the blast indicates the work of the well-equipped IRA…this latest act of IRA terrorism is an ominous indication of what lies ahead for Ulster. This province has continually been subjected to IRA barbarism, especially sabotage and ambush. Loyalists must now appreciate the struggle that lies ahead and the supreme sacrifice that will have to be made in order that Ulster will remain Protestant”

A UPV booklet echoed this judgement. In fact, a small group of UPV and UVF men had planted the bombs to erode confidence in O’Neill. The gelignite used in the blasts had been stolen from coal mines in Scotland by UVF supporters there and smuggled across the Irish Sea in suitcases carried by ferry foot passengers. Further attacks targeting essential services occurred:

  • 20th of April – pipelines destroyed at Silent Valley reservoir, electricity pylon damaged at Kilmore
  • 23rd of April – another pipeline supplying Belfast was destroyed at Templemore. Again, the explosion coincided with a Unionist vote on electoral reform
  • 24th of April – an eighth explosion severs a water pipe in Annalong

RTÉ reporting on the 23rd April bombing

The attacks on the pipelines cut Belfast’s water supply by half and caused great apprehension throughout Northern Ireland – was this the opening stage of a new republican offensive? The last IRA campaign had petered out in 1962 after six years and had singularly failed to rouse an indifferent nationalist population to revolt, but even a dormant IRA had the ability to induce a low-level siege mentality among unionists. The Republic of Ireland was seen as a safe haven for gunmen and bombers, sheltered by a state pledged to take over the usurpers in the north, and after the last attack the Protestant Telegraph ran an article mendaciously suggesting the government of the Republic was responsible for the explosions! Despite considerable speculation in the press that Protestant extremists were behind the blasts most people held the IRA responsible, and pressure on O’Neill to resign mounted. On the 28th of April, he did. He was later to write that the bombs “literally blew (him) out of office”. His cousin, James Chichester-Clarke, another landed Protestant, took over. On the 12th of August the Battle of the Bogside erupted, with British troops arriving two days later. The Troubles had officially begun.

The majority of the press and public continued to hold the IRA responsible for the attacks earlier in the year, with the loyalist theory playing runner-up. But in mid-October the UPV/UVF conspiracy was revealed during an incident across the border in Co Donegal. Thomas McDowell, a married quarry foreman with 10 (!) children, electrocuted himself while attempting to blow up a power substation in Ballyshannon with a massive 200lb of gelignite. As he planted the device he was momentarily illuminated in the headlights of a car, and grabbed a transformer bushing, sending 5,600 volts through his body with a blinding flash and blowing off his clothes. He lived for three days before dying of extensive burns and massive internal injuries.


John McKeague speaking to the BBC in 1976

McDowell was not only a member of the UPV and Paisley’s Mourne Free Presbyterian Church but also, critically, a member of the UVF. He leads the organisation’s roll of honour – the “Battalion of the Dead” – as the first to die in the conflict. Further police enquiries led them to unemployed lorry driver Samuel Stevenson, ex-B Special and former member of the Donegall Pass UPV who had also served as Major Bunting’s election manager. Stevenson turned crown witness and gave up his co-conspirators leading to no less than three separate trials. The other men, who were all variously involved in Free Presbyterianism, the UPV, or UVF, including John McKeague – later to become the figurehead of the Red Hand Commando – and his teenage gay lover, were found not guilty as a result of a weak Crown case based entirely upon unsupported accomplice evidence. Ominously, on February 18th 1970, as the prosecution summed up its case in the second trial, two explosions rocked the courthouse in succession – one across the road at Crumlin Road Jail, the other in a corridor outside the court itself. They had been planted by the UVF.

In bringing down a head of government the UVF/UPV attacks represented arguably the single most successful bombing campaign in the history of the Troubles in terms of political effect, and certainly the most effective in proportion to the number of devices used. Given the recurring theme of Paisleyism and its potent effect on his followers in the UPV, UCDC and UVF the ancient question of the Reverend Doctor’s culpability must be returned to. Paisley was the roaring sun-god around which his ultraloyalist supporters orbited during this period – loyalist disenchantment with “the Big Man” and cries of “we won’t die for you any more” were a long way off – and so it is worthwhile asking just how much he himself knew of these activities at the time. The very question was asked by Stevenson of another conspirator close to Paisley and related during his trial. His answer:

“Certainly he does. You have to tell him and you haven’t. He knows and he doesn’t know”

From the false flag operations of 1969 through to the end of 1971 UVF and loyalist bombings in general continued sporadically, attacks against property and edifice punctuated by notable outrages which resulted in loss of life, sometimes considerable. As always, the IRA set the pace: in 1970, 27 bombs were attributed to the UVF compared to 130 by the IRA. Significantly, the UVF began striking across the border from the earliest days of the conflict. Republican monuments were a favourite target during this period. The UVF had already destroyed a republican memorial in Toomebridge, Co Antrim, at the beginning of 1969, and set off a small device at the headquarters of RTÉ a few months later. On Halloween 1969 the gravesite of United Irishman leader Wolfe Tone was destroyed by another UVF bomb (it was later replaced in a rededication ceremony attended by many republicans). Another iconoclastic attack followed, again on Dublin, when the Daniel O’Connell monument on O’Connell Street was blown apart with gelignite. Further strikes targeted an RTE radio mast serving Northern Ireland (18/02/70), a substation in Dublin (26/03/70), the O’Connell monument in Glasnevin Cemetery (17/01/71), and the statue of Wolfe Tone in St Stephen’s Green (08/02/71). Within Northern Ireland itself the UVF continued to carry out high profile but bloodless bombings against nationalist politicians and those on the liberal wing of unionism: ex-liberal MP Sheelagh Murnaghan (08/02/70), Austin Currie MP (07/03/70), Anne Dickson (02/70 twice, 10/08/70). Catholic-owned shops, Roman Catholic chapels, and taxi depots were all hit, always at night, and without loss of life. This was soon to change, however.

1971 saw a major escalation of the conflict as the Provisional IRA began its campaign in earnest. Bombing incidents rocketed, with the Provisionals carrying out an average of almost 100 attacks a month. The first British soldier was killed in February. A month later, three young off-duty Scottish soldiers were killed in a “honey trap” operation by a PIRA gang led by Martin Meehan. Drunk and lured by promises of women, they were shot in the back of the head as they urinated by the roadside on the outskirts of Belfast. The attack outraged and revolted unionists. That year also saw the advent of a tactic which was to become emblematic of the conflict’s callous sectarian nature: the no-warning pub bomb. Although it was the UVF more than any other group who were to make the no-warning pub bomb their hallmark, it was in reality the Provos who uncorked the bottle. In early 1971, under the direction of then Chief of Staff Sean MacStiofain, a deracinated zealot from North London with tenuous family links to Ireland, the IRA began bombing Protestant pubs during opening hours with inevitable civilian casualties. Two Protestant civilians had already been killed by IRA attacks on Mackies factory and the electricity board offices in August when republicans bombed the Bluebell Bar in Sandy Row on the 20th of September, injuring 25 but causing no deaths. A day later, the first death from a loyalist “own goal” occurred when James Finlay died after blowing himself and another man up while making pipe bombs a week earlier – John Thompson lived a week longer. A third injured man, John Bingham, survived to become a UVF battalion commander and was later killed the IRA, while Thompson was claimed by the UDA3.

It was the IRA bombing of the Four Step Inn on the Shankill Road on 29th September which was to prompt lethal retaliation from loyalists. Alexander “Joker” Andrews and Ernest Bates died and 27 were injured, many losing limbs, the funerals drawing 50,000 people. In response, the Fiddlers House pub in the lower Falls was bombed on October 9th, killing a Protestant woman. Malcolm Sutton attributes the bomb to the UVF, while Lost Lives charges the UDA with responsibility. A month later, the IRA threw a bomb into the Red Lion on the Ormeau Road, killing three Protestants. On November 22nd IRA man Michael Crosse blew himself to pieces while placing a bomb in the Cellar Bar, Lurgan, injured eight civilians. Much worse was to come.


The aftermath of the bomb at McGurk’s

The cycle of pub bombings came to a horrific climax in the first week of December 1971. The Tramore Bar on North Queen Street was a family establishment run by husband and wife Patrick and Philomena McGurk who lived above the bar with their children. From the couple came the pub’s popular name – McGurk’s. At 8:45PM on the evening of the 4th a car drew up outside and a masked man carrying a large parcel wrapped in plastic got out. A boy playing in the street nearby noticed a small Union Jack sticker in the rear window of the vehicle. The figure walked over to the doorway of the bar, placed the package inside, and lit a fuse protruding from it with a match. It was a 50lb gelignite bomb.

The explosion blew out the walls of the building and brought the upper level down on the 30 people inside, killing 15. Only one of the victims died as a direct result of the blast. Eight of those killed suffered an agonising end, crushed to death beneath the rubble. The oldest victim was 73yr old lollipop man Philip Garry, the youngest Marie McGurk, the 14 yr old daughter of the owners. An army officer, Major Jeremy Snow, was also shot dead by the IRA during the rescue effort afterwards. The original target for the bombers had been The Gem nearby on the corner of North Queen Street, but the presence of people outside the pub prevented them from planting the device. The Gem had a reputation as a hang-out for those in the Official Republican movement, the Marxist rump left when the Provisional Army Council split off in December 1969, and as such a target for loyalists. McGurk’s on the other hand was known as a place where old people and families could gather for a drink. It was an early example of loyalist tendency to settle for a random touch when their main republican target could not be attacked.

So great was the loss of life that the UVF declined to take responsibility, instead issuing a claim under the bogus name of “Empire Loyalists”. Unforgivably, and despite early evidence to the contrary, the RUC used the tragedy as an opportunity to conduct a black propaganda operation against the IRA by fostering the lie that an IRA bomb had been in transit when it had exploded. David McKittrick was one of the first journalists to challenge this untruth, correctly naming the UVF as the culprits, while Sean MacStiofain spun a black ops fantasy about “British undercover elements” working to provoke the IRA (as if the IRA needed provocation), a theory still promoted by republicans to this day. It was seven years before one of the bomb team, Robert James “Jimmy” Campbell, was convicted, receiving sixteen life sentences.

Retaliation came on December the 11th when the IRA carried out a no-warning attack on the Balmoral Showroom furnishing shop on the Shankill Road. Two men, one a Catholic, were killed, but it was the deaths of two year old Tracey Munn and 17 month old Colin Nicholl which was to prompt most outrage. The Shankill was and is the most staunchly loyalist area of Belfast and the target was probably chosen with this in mind. The Balmoral bomb was a critical factor in prompting many young Shankill men to join loyalist paramilitary groups, with the UDA in particular gaining a surge in recruitment. The IRA has never admitted planting the bomb.

1972 was the deadliest year of the conflict with 497 deaths. It saw Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, the advent of “travelling gunmen” who shot victims at random, and a brief IRA ceasefire and negotiations with the British government which in turn massively stoked loyalist fears of a withdrawal. Later years saw the UVF make enthusiastic use of car bombs and devices tossed into Catholic bars. To read about this, click here for part two.

1 two children aged six and four were killed in this attack

2 Bunting’s son, Ronnie, was active in the civil rights demonstrations, and would go on to become a leader in the Official IRA then INLA before being assassinated by the UDA in 1980

3 although Finlay is listed in Lost Lives as a member of the UDA he does not appear on the organisation’s own roll of honour


The Red Hand, Steve Bruce (1992), Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-285256-6

Loyalists, Peter Taylor (2000), Bloomsbury, ISBN 0-7475-4519-7

UVF, Jim Cusack & Henry McDonald (2000), Poolbeg, ISBN 1-85371-687-1

Lost Lives, David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton (1999), Mainstream Publishing, ISBN 1-84018-504-X

UVF: An Anatomy of Loyalist Rebellion, 1966-73, David Boulton (1973), Gill & MacMillan, ISBN 978-0717106660

The Northern Ireland Troubles: Operation Banner 1969-2007, Aaron Edwards (2011), Osprey Publishing, ISBN 978-1849085250

Voices from the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland, Ed Moloney (2011), Faber & Faber, ISBN 978-0571251698


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