In this part we’ll cover the advent of the loyalist car bomb, the characteristics of home-made devices, the largely forgotten UVF bombing offensive of late 1973, the bombing of Dublin and Monaghan (which, contrary to the claims of campaigners, required little technical expertise), and why the UVF largely stopped using explosives in 1977 before resuming attacks 15 years later.
In his book The Shankill Butchers the journalist Martin Dillon perpetuates the popular myth that loyalists didn’t “do” explosives and in doing so makes a number of incorrect statements. On page 222 for example he states that loyalists “had neither knowledge of, nor access to, explosives” which, as we have seen in part one, is hardly the case. He also claims, entirely without justification or evidence, that the UVF possessed only one bomb-maker in the mid-70s, James “Tonto” Watt. Even a brief investigation of UVF activities during this period would reveal that this was in fact the period when their bombing campaign was at its most intensive. Either Watt was an explosives-handling one-armed paperhanger who somehow found time to travel to UVF units all over Northern Ireland, evade the police, and make bombs, or Dillon’s statement is untrue. In reality, most UVF members would be given at least basic familiarisation with explosives and a considerable percentage would be given more detailed training in how to manufacture home-made bombs. He also contrasts the complexity of IRA devices with the comparatively basic ones manufactured by the UVF and claims that the latter organisation “never set out to acquire the same sophisticated knowledge”. This misses the point. The IRA were up against one of the world’s most sophisticated armies, which could rely on the support of state technology labs as well as its own engineers. Attacks on patrols and armoured vehicles led to the deployment of new tactics and various iterations of counter-IED and ECM equipment with codenames such as Joker, Sifter, and Chimp, to minimise the threat from devices initiated by command wire, radio signals, and infrared beams. The IRA in turn developed anti-handling devices, under-vehicle bombs, armour-piercing drogue grenades, and radio pulse initiators in a technological war of measure and countermeasure.
The UVF by contrast merely had to deliver bombs to Catholic targets such as pubs, clubs and shops and get them to explode reliably. Their technology was sufficient for this purpose. There were no armoured vehicles to penetrate, no hardened sangars to defeat, and no foot patrols to ambush. Some have taken the simplicity of loyalist devices to indicate a comparative lack of skill or intelligence on the part of the bombers – the “thick Prod” theory. But to give a counter-example, the fact that loyalists were able to manufacture on a serial, production-line basis various and improving models of sub-machinegun shows that considerable technical skill existed within those organisations and their supporters to fill a need when it existed. Put simply, loyalist bombs were good enough for their intended purpose – causing damage or death on a large scale.
1972 was the bloodiest year of the Troubles. 497 people were killed in total, with July alone seeing almost 100 deaths. In January the Parachute Regiment shot dead 13 unarmed men – twelve civilians and a member of Na Fianna Éireann – in Londonderry giving the Provisional IRA a huge boost in both acceptance and recruitment among the Catholic population. Their Official rivals, still strong in Derry, retaliated with a disastrous bomb attack on the Para’s regimental HQ in Aldershot, killing six civilians and a Roman Catholic army chaplain. The bombings of Donegall Street and the Abercorn Restaurant brought revulsion, an IRA ceasefire came and went, and then the coordinated blitz of Bloody Friday in mid-July stunned Northern Ireland and brought Belfast to a near standstill. 1972 was the year the Provos set the benchmark for what could be achieved with a lot of fertiliser, some gelignite, and the will to use it. At the same time loyalists lagged far behind in the use of all types of explosive devices. Although a number of pub bombings did take place, there was no repeat of McGurk’s with its mass casualties. The great majority of loyalist victims that year fell to travelling gunmen and assassination teams who picked off Catholics at random. Vigilantes manning barricades, drunks walking home, and pedestrians near interface areas were the favourite targets. 19 died in explosions of all kinds compared to 102 shot, stabbed, or beaten to death by loyalists. Ascribing certain incidents of this period to specific organisations is difficult as claims of responsibility were either conflicting or not made at all, but both the UDA and UVF were actively bombing nationalist targets at this time. The UDA’s campaign would largely peter out by mid-’73, yet the UVF would not only sustain its efforts but massively increase them in both scope and intensity.
The invention of the car bomb or VBIED (Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device) is sometimes attributed to the IRA via a picturesque tale involving Jack McCabe, a veteran republican activist who in late 1971 blew himself up while mixing a homemade explosive concoction known as “the black stuff” in a Dublin garage. Believing the mixture to be unsafe, so the story goes, the IRA then ordered that its remaining stock be used up, whereupon it was loaded into a car and blown up in Belfast city centre. While there is no doubt that this makes for a colourful origin story, car bombs had in truth been used many times in the past – in colonial Algeria and by Zionist extremists during the British Mandate in Palestine for example – and they were simply an obvious and logical development of any terror group’s use of explosives.
The first death attributable to a loyalist car bomb occurred on the 13th May 1972 when Kelly’s Bar on the Whiterock Road was attacked, probably by the UVF, precipitating a massive gun battle between UVF snipers, the British Army, and the IRA. The next took place on the 14th September 1972 when the Imperial Hotel on Cliftonville Road was attacked, killing three. The first car bomb fatality that can conclusively be attributed to the UVF happened two weeks later when Patrick McKee, a 24yr old Catholic and former internee, died when an estimated 100-150lb device hidden in the boot of a car exploded as he walked past Conlon’s Bar. Another man died two weeks later. A number of other car bombings took place that year, but by far the most significant took place over the border, in Dublin.
On December 1st the Dáil Éireann debated controversial new legislation targeting the IRA as Jack Lynch’s Fianna Fáil government sought to introduce sweeping new anti-terrorism powers via an amendment to the Offences Against the State Act. Among the measures was a highly controversial clause which would give any Gardai officer of the rank of Chief Superintendent or above the power to charge people with membership of an illegal organisation on the basis of that officer’s suspicion, regardless of whether or not evidence existed to that effect.
The debate was bitter and extremely heated as speeches ranged over not just the bill but the Republic’s policy toward the North over the previous three years and further back. Neil Blaney, who had recently been expelled from Fianna Fáil, spoke out forcefully against the proposed measures, describing the IRA as “freedom fighters” against “occupation forces”. He was one of the government dissidents opposing the bill, although chief resistance to it came from the Fine Gael opposition who regarded it as a sop to the British after years of FF indifference towards the IRA. Blaney, a lifelong republican from a political dynasty with Old IRA heritage, was one of the cabinet ministers who in 1969 and 1970 had funneled money and guns to the Defence Committees, vigilante groups closely associated with, and in many cases controlled by, the Provisional IRA. In turn Fianna Fáil were described by Labour TD Barry Desmond as having “blood on their hands”, and Edward Collins castigated them as “the godfathers of the Provisional IRA”. Progress looked to have stalled amidst recrimination when a loud thud was heard in the chamber, followed by another fifteen minutes later. Two car bombs had exploded: the first near the Liberty Hall headquarters of the ITGWU, the second in Sackville Place. This bomb killed two bus conductors. The explosions had the effect of compelling Fine Gael to abstain from the vote, and the bill was subsequently passed without amendment. Several speakers in the Dáil immediately suspected the bombs as the work of the UVF. They were correct.
Predictably, republicans claim that the attack was the work of British intelligence seeking to influence the Dáil. Loyalists, they assert, were not politically astute enough to mount such an operation. However, as we have seen in part one, the UVF had already used high-profile bombings to influence crucial unionist votes in 1969, and later force a Prime Minister out of office: the Dublin explosions were simply an inevitable cross-border extension of that tried-and-tested gambit. The further contention that the UVF did not have the logistical capability to strike so far south can be dismissed as absurd: there might not be many Rhodes Scholars in the People’s Army, but there are plenty of men with the ability to drive a car and read road signs.
In late summer 1973 the UVF launched a whirlwind bombing campaign, the intensity of which had never been seen before from loyalists and which took even the Provisional IRA by surprise. The campaign had been long in planning, explosives and other materials being carefully stockpiled in anticipation of the coming offensive. It began slowly in the first weeks of July, picked up a little in August, but by September they were outbombing the IRA and UDA combined. On the 8th of July the Sportsman’s Inn in Sailortown (now gentrified as the Cathedral Quarter) was hit with a no-warning 150lb car bomb injuring four, and later the same day a small gas cylinder bomb was thrown at the Bus Bar, more commonly known as Traynor’s, in Smithfield. Just over a week later two huge car bombs were used to target pubs. One went off outside the Silver Eel in Crumlin, killing an elderly Catholic man, while another detonated outside the Criteria Bar in Crumlin Road. Both vehicles had been stolen in loyalist areas. The attacks then intensified. On the 20th of July three pubs were hit in the space of 30 minutes: Mooney’s in Eliza Street, the College Arms in Edward Street, while a second attack on Traynor’s finally destroyed the premises. The next week brought bombings targeting the Earl Inn, injuring two, and the Joy Inn in the Markets. There was a brief lull in the offensive before it resumed with a vengeance in the second week of August. From then until the middle of November there was no let-up. A 100lb car bomb was left outside Maguire’s in the Docks area on the 13th of August; two days later the Sportsman’s was hit again, this time with a massive device which blew parts of the vehicle a hundred yards away. One man was killed. The attacks extended to Roman Catholic chapels, two of which were destroyed in north Antrim – the offensive was expanding beyond the UVF’s Belfast heartland. In Portadown the organisation’s Mid-Ulster Battalion blew up the Parkside Bar with a 200-pounder, injuring six. The biggest explosion of the year came when a car bomb estimated at 750lb destroyed St Patrick’s Church in Ballycastle. Clearly the UVF was not short of material: indeed, Kevin Myers, in his somewhat unreliable (but basically accurate) memoir Watching the Door, says that during this period the organisation’s supplies of explosives were so readily to hand they were like “bags of sugar”. That much was confirmed by a police bust on a UVF bomb factory in a lock-up garage in East Belfast on the day of the Ballycastle bomb. Made-up gas cylinder devices, empty beer barrels, sodium chlorate, and ammunition were all seized. Supplies were also flowing into the country from sympathisers over the Irish Sea – a cache of gelignite bound for Ulster was found in a cistern in the toilets at Stranraer Railway Station in Scotland. The miners of Lanarkshire, particularly North Lanarkshire, had always had staunch loyalist sympathies – they had famously heckled Keir Hardie decades earlier – and the individually small thefts of explosives from mines in places like Wattston, Benhar, and Greengairs could add up significantly when stockpiled across the water.
From late September things intensified further. Bars owned or frequented by Catholics were hit again and again. The Rocktown Bar was levelled by members of the Shankill UVF in late September. In October six pubs in Belfast city centre were bombed, including the Cobweb, Wilson’s, and the Four in Hand. Two 500lb car bombs were set off on the Falls Road, destroying homes and shops, and the offices of the Republican Clubs nearby also attracted the attention of the bombers. November was the worst month, as the campaign climaxed in anticipation of a coming UVF ceasefire which had been announced for the 18th. In the first week the Avenue Bar and Madden’s were both attacked, the first killing one and the second destroying the pub without fatality. In a seeming portent of things to come another bomb factory was uncovered, this time in Duncairn. Among the find was 700lb of explosive mix, detonators, detonating cord, and empty gas cylinders. A further attack on the Sunflower Bar in Corporation Street on the 9th of November was mercifully bloodless. Major car bombings were now running at a rate of at least two or three a week, gas cylinder devices more than that, and less damaging attacks (but no less enervating for their Catholic victims) with pipe bombs occurred with great regularity. As the offensive entered its final week a UVF spokesman gave a chilling warning: “we haven’t shown the heat yet. It will get worse before next Sunday. We have taken the muzzle off the dog”.
It was not an empty threat. On the 11th of November chaos descended on Belfast as an unprecedented UVF blitz saw six bombs go off in coordinated strikes that took place over two hours. Four pubs – Shaftesbury’s on the Antrim Road, the Mayfair Bar, the American Bar, and Farrell’s in Essex Street – were all damaged to some degree. A petrol station was levelled, and the sixth bomb obliterated the former HQ of the SDLP on Killen Street after previous unsuccessful attempts to destroy the building. Later in the day the Transport Bar on the Grosvenor Road and Lavery’s were both bombed. This day of furious action was testament to, and a deliberate demonstration of, the UVF’s ability to carry out synchronised car bombings. The UFF – or someone pretending to be them – phoned in bogus claims of responsibility, as they often did after UVF bombs, but few informed observers believed them. The nationalist community was just coming to terms with the onslaught of the 11th when another wave of bombings was launched on Wednesday the 14th. Over the next three days five pubs were damaged or destroyed, including the Chlorane on Gresham Street (site of a particularly stupid UVF massacre three years later), while the unfortunate Four In Hand received its second bomb. Vehicle-borne devices also damaged homes in the Falls although thankfully a warning was given. An enormous van bomb was defused by the army on Crumlin Road, while the UVF in South-East Antrim attacked the Central and Harbour bars, injuring three. The last day of the campaign saw one final push with four attacks on pubs, the most serious against the Rose & Crown which took the blast from a 200lb car bomb.
Just as the campaign was drawing to an end in anticipation of its declared ceasefire, the UVF lost an important bomb-maker. On November the 18th, Charlie Logan, a 26 yr old Major in the UVF, accidentally blew himself up in a massive explosion at a farmhouse near Desertmartin in Co Derry. Logan, a steeplejack from Toronto Street in east Belfast and married with two children, was one of the organisation’s ATOs, responsible for storing explosives and crafting the larger bombs. Three civilians who lived at the property and were being held captive – a former unionist councillor, his wife, and their neice – were also injured in the blast.
The ceasefire came about as a result of major stirrings within the leadership of the Ulster Volunteer Force. UVF internees who had recently been released from Long Kesh where they had imbibed a form of socialist thinking from Gusty Spence, together with members of the social and welfare wing of the organisation, formed the Volunteer Political Party. The UVF began issuing concilliatory statements, declaring “first and foremost the people of Ulster must realise that sooner or later they are going to have to live together”, and eventually the VPP produced a manifesto which closely resembled the policies of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. In an attempt to encourage these political developments the UVF, along with Provisional Sinn Fein, was legalised in early April 1974 by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Merlyn Rees. Behind the scenes even more startling moves were taking place. Having already met with the Marxist Officials, with whom they found some common ground, the Brigade Staff of the UVF voted 4-2 to begin exploratory talks with the Provisional IRA. The bombing campaign of the previous year meant that the organisation entered negotiations with a strong hand. They had been responsible for over 200 explosions compared to just under 300 from the Provisional IRA. Chiefly as a result of this, the group’s delegates were able to leverage a commitment from the IRA to cease the assassination of off-duty members of the security forces in return for a halt in pub bombings.
But this embryonic detente quickly began to fracture, for UVF discipline wavered as the ceasefire wore on. Activists began carrying out murders and bombings under the covername of “Protestant Action Force”. The shadowy paramilitary organisation cum loyalist ginger group Tara, led by child molester and British agent William McGrath, began accusing the VPP and UVF of “communism”. Parallel to this, black propaganda against the VPP was issued from the British Army’s press office in Lisburn in the form of statements from the fabricated Marxist-Loyalist group “Ulster Citizen’s Army”. Then the VPP’s application to join the United Ulster Unionist Council was turned down, causing further dejection.
However the defining action of the UVF in 1974 took place 100 miles away, across the border. The theft of 20 tonnes of ammonium nitrate from Belfast docks on December 4th 1973, carried out by the UVF, should have alerted observers to the fact that a major strike was in the offing. On the third day of the Ulster Worker’s Council strike which was paralysing Northern Ireland, three car bombs exploded in the centre of Dublin. 90 minutes later another went off in Monaghan town. The Dublin bombs killed 27, the one in Monaghan another five – the largest loss of life in a single day of the conflict. Most of those killed were young women, including 21 yr old Collette O’Doherty who was nine months pregnant. The bombings of Dublin and Monaghan will be the subject of a future article on Balaclava Street, and so they will only briefly be discussed here. In short, they were the work of UVF teams from Belfast and Mid-Ulster, and in both modus operandi and type of devices used they were identical to the attacks which the UVF had carried out so intensively the previous year. There was no involvement from MI5 or special forces, as claimed by the usual quarters, nor was there any need for it. But the lack of comment from the British government, coupled with a 20-year policy of amnesia in the Republic, has encouraged a form of investigative pareidolia whereby campaigners and agenda-driven “truth-seekers” see roving SAS men and malign spooks in the dark gaps left by an incompetent and incomplete Gardai investigation. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and Ireland’s biggest trading partner, the UK had far better ways of influencing Irish policy, all of which would have the advantage of not resulting in a worldwide scandal in the event of their discovery. Moreover, the actions of right-wing extremists like Timothy McVeigh and Anders Behring Breivik, or Islamic militants such as the Tsarnaev brothers, dramatically demonstrate that bombing outrages can be perpetrated with these devices without the aid of a wider organisation, or even indeed accomplices. Mike Davis, author of Buda’s Wagon, a definitive history of the car bomb, writes:
car bombings are operationally simple to organize. Although some still refuse to believe that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols didn’t have secret assistance from a government or dark entity, two men in the proverbial phone booth — a security-guard and a farmer — successfully planned and executed the horrendous Oklahoma City bombing with instructional books and information acquired from the gun-show circuit
Despite remarks made by some in recent years, particularly in reference to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, the type of devices used by the UVF and other loyalist groups required neither a great deal of technical skill to assemble nor specialist components. On the contrary, little instruction would be needed to train someone to a level where they could turn out effective time-delayed vehicle-borne devices or canister bombs, and the non-explosive materials used in their construction could be found in any home of the period. The ranks of the UVF of the 1970s were in great part made up of men from the skilled working class, such as metalworkers, electricians, plumbers, and pipe-fitters, all of whom would have little trouble adapting their existing manual skills to the task of making bombs with which to target the nationalist community.
Explosive substances are broadly divided into two categories. There are the low (or deflagrating) explosives such as blackpowder and smokeless powder. High explosives include TNT, gelignite, sodium chlorate with caster sugar or nitrobenzene (“Co-Op Mix”), and Semtex. In simple terms, low explosives combust in a fast-burning reaction and high explosives detonate. The distinction refers to the speed of the blast wave produced – that of the low explosives is a fraction of the 7,000 metres per second or so in the case of TNT. Ammonium nitrate falls in between the two groupings and is properly referred to as a “blasting agent”. Although it undergoes true detonation, its blast wave is significantly slower than that of the main high explosives (3,600 – 4,000 m/s when unconfined).
Ammonium nitrate is an extremely common substance vital as both an agricultural fertiliser and an explosive in the mining and quarrying industry. Global production runs into the tens of millions of tonnes annually. When combined with diesel fuel at a ratio of 5.5-6.0% fuel-to-AN, it makes a powerful mixture known as ANFO. Commonly produced in the form of small pellets called “prills”, ANFO is usually sufficiently insensitive as to require a booster of a more sensitive explosive, typically gelignite in the case of the UVF, although it is easier to detonate when ground into a fine powder (industrial coffee grinders were a common find when IRA bomb factories were raided). Caster sugar may be substituted for diesel as the fuel component. ANFO was the main constituent of UVF car bombs, such as those used in the attack on Kelly’s Bar in 1972, and in the Dublin & Monaghan bombings.
Gas cylinder bombs were one of the most common devices used by the UVF in the 70s, with scores being placed in the doorways of pubs, clubs, and shops. “Co-Op Mix” and other chlorate confections were the typical filling. When placed in open air and ignited these substances burn violently but harmlessly. However, when confined in a suitable vessel – empty beer barrels, gas cylinders, or fire extinguishers – the reaction is violent, instantaneous, and explosive. At the time sodium chlorate was unrestricted and widely available as a weedkiller, and supplies were “procured” in vast quantities across the United Kingdom and even the Republic of Ireland: a number of Scottish UVF men were imprisoned after stealing hundreds of pounds of it from water treatment plants across Scotland, for example. ANFO was also occasionally used in cylinder bombs.
The canister bomb was another favourite of the UVF and UDA, particularly for attacks on nationalist pubs and clubs. A suitable quanitity of explosive, usually gelignite, was packed into a metal tin such as a large paint can and surrounded by shrapnel – nuts, bolts, scrap metal, etc – to produce deadly fragmentation. The fuse would be lit and the device tossed into a packed bar while gunfire was directed into the building to prevent those inside from interfering with it (such bombs could easily be rendered inert simply by pulling the fuse out, or by carrying it outside). In the 1970s gelignite was the most commonly used high explosive in Northern Ireland. On its own or in combination with other substances it was manufactured under a bewildering range of brand names, such as Frangex, Gelamex, Gelignite No.563, Polar Ammon, Polar Geobel, Simex, Seamex, and Gelatin Extra. Frangex was manufactured in the Republic of Ireland and was used extensively by the IRA, INLA, and UVF. Supplies were limited and so it was used sparingly, often as a booster for ammonium nitrate or gas cylinder bombs.
Car bombs in particular require the use of a timer in order to allow the bomb team to escape with a reasonable margin of safety. Such delays are extremely easy to manufacture: literally any idiot can produce them, and a search of YouTube reveals that many indeed do. UVF VBIEDs and booby traps almost exclusively used modified alarm clocks and watches. The simplicity of such contrivances is readily apparent from the instructions given in publically-available US Army training manuals such as the one below:
By late 1974 the UVF was on ceasefire in name only. The VPP experiment had failed in the face of indifference and outright sabotage, and it finally collapsed when its candidate and chairman, ex-internee and UVF colonel Ken Gibson, drew a disappointing vote in elections that October. A hardline faction then took over the Brigade Staff, leading to a year of appalling sectarian violence in which the bomb played a major role. Critically, this was the time when the Provisional IRA, also on putative ceasefire, became openly involved in overtly sectarian actions including random assassinations and pub bombings. As the inheritor of a 200 year old tradition the IRA has a very large bag of explanations (or excuses) from which to draw justification for killing this or that person, but they were rarely offered in 1975 and ’76. As with the bombings of the Four Step Inn and Balmoral Showroom in 1971, in many instances it did not even claim the attacks. This cycle of bombing and retaliatory counter-bombing from both sides served to make 1975 one of the worst years of the conflict. There are too many instances of mass murder to go into detail, but the bombings of the Mountainview Tavern (in revenge for a bomb attack on a bar in New Lodge which killed two), Bayardo Bar, and Central Bar by republicans, and the Strand, McGleenan’s, and Kay’s Tavern by loyalists, stand out among the incidents which led to the deaths of 267 people that year. The year also saw an attempt by the Mid-Ulster Battalion to derail a train carrying 300 members of the Official Republican movement to a Wolfe Tone commemoration in Sallins, Co Meath.
The most notorious loyalist bombing incident of the year was undoubtedly the sickening attack on the Miami Showband. The popular group was making its way back to the Republic in their minivan after playing a gig in Banbridge, Co Down, when they were flagged down by a bogus checkpoint consisting of UVF members, some of whom were also in the UDR, wearing army uniform. The band were lined up by the side of the road as the van was “searched” – in fact, UVF Major Harris Boyle and Wesley Sommerville were planting a 10lb gelignite bomb under one of the seats, timed to go off as the band travelled back over the border. But as they closed the door of the van the device exploded prematurely. Years later, a senior member of the UVF who met with one of the survivors suggested that faulty soldering on the modified alarm clock had caused it to short circuit. The two bombers were dismembered by the blast, the torso of one landing ninety feet away, and in the aftermath the UVF patrol opened fire on the band. Three were killed while two survived, one with severe injuries.
As always, allegations that the operation was a plot by British intelligence and carried out with the aid of the SAS have been advanced. The case for SAS involvement in the attack is unconvincing. Leaving aside the fact that special forces do not generally rely on bombs that kill the people planting them, while terrorists often do, a British plot to tarnish the Showband as smugglers bringing bombs over the border would surely be sophisticated enough to plant the device as they band entered Northern Ireland, rather than when they were leaving the province. After all, if you are going to smear someone as an IRA smuggler, what political capital is to be gained from implying that they were taking explosives out of Northern Ireland? Moreover, a British operation would have had cross-border agents to track the band as they set out, and so intercept them during their journey in. Loyalists, on the other hand, would not have been aware when the group were coming, though they would have known when they left the venue. Collusion was limited to the involvement of dual-member UVF/UDR men, which is criminal enough.
The attack on the Showband highlighted a growing problem for the UVF. More and more of their members were falling victim to “own goals” as they blew themselves up with their own devices. From 1969 to 1973, 43 members of the IRA were killed in incidents of this kind, but the UVF did not develop a serious problem until the mid-70s. In 1975 nine members of the organisation died as a result of malfunctioning bombs. This could occur during the construction of a device, its arming, or if old and unstable gelignite was used. The second cause was the most likely scenario when a car containing four volunteers led by Aubrey Reid was blown to pieces outside Coleraine on the 2nd of October, a day when the UVF launched a wave of bomb and gun attacks across the province in its fiercest offensive ever, 13 devices being detonated in total. 12 people died as a result, prompting the immediate re-proscription of the organisation, mass arrests, and later in the month a coup which removed the hardliners who had taken control a year before. Replacing them were many of those who had been in charge during the VPP period, in addition to several new figures.
With its continuing sectarian violence from both loyalists and republicans 1976 was in many ways a repeat of the previous dismal year, but it did see a drop in bomb attacks by the UVF. Their rivals in the UDA picked up the slack somewhat by making several forays over the border, planting bombs in four Dublin hotels. They had already bombed Dublin Airport at the end of the preceding year, killing one man and injuring eight others. There were a number of pub bombings, but the general trend was downward as the newly-introduced policy of criminalisation gathered pace and the RUC moved against loyalists across Northern Ireland.
1977 was pivotal in terms of the UVF’s use of explosives. This was the last year in which they would make widespread use of bombs, and the general halt in this type of activity was the result of a number of varied factors. The first was the attrition of experienced bomb-makers. Many were in prison serving long sentences, while others such as Joe Long and James Cordner fell casualty to further own goals. 33 year old Long, a native of South Belfast, was a Captain in the East Belfast UVF, while Cordner was 23 and from the Newtonards Road. They were killed in the act of planting a bomb under a car alleged to be owned by a member of the IRA who acted as a driver for prominent IRA figures. The second aspect was supply difficulties. Many of the coalfields and quarries of central Scotland from where the UVF had obtained much of their gelignite were closing down and the ones which remained open greatly tightened their security. Controls were also introduced on the sale of ammonium nitrate and additives were put in chlorate weedkillers to prevent their being used as explosives. The UVF was also having serious problems sourcing a reliable supply of detonators. These come in two types, plain and electrical. The former are initiated with safety fuse and were used in gas cylinder and canister bombs, while the latter were set off via battery and essential for car bombs and other timed devices. Detonators are the most critical element of any IED and are extremely difficult to replicate via amateur methods. Perhaps the main reason for the abrupt disappearance of the bomb from the UVF’s arsenal was a decision by its leadership to forgoe their use in favour of more contained, focused methods. During the abortive loyalist strike in 1977 an off-duty member of the UDR was killed by a UVF booby-trap at a petrol station on Crumlin Road bringing severe criticism of the group from various unionist quarters, not least due to the fact that the dead man was the son of one of the strike organisers. The organisation also car-bombed two republican events early in the year: the Easter Rising commemoration leaving Beechmount Parade (although the OIRA procession was hit instead of the Provisional one) and the funeral of IRA man Trevor McKibben in Ardoyne. Both these attacks killed civilians, including a 10 year old boy whose father was a member of the Official Republican movement, and the day after the funeral bomb the IRA retaliated by shooting dead a young Protestant man picked out at random. But barring a handful of isolated incidents in the early 80s these attacks represented the final act in this chapter of the UVF’s use of explosives which had begun in 1969. For now, the bomb was put back on the shelf.
From 1969 to 1977, some 164 of UVF/RHC/PAF victims were shot, stabbed, or beaten compared to 128 killed by bombs (author’s own research, compiled from Sutton and Lost Lives). If we include those killed in bomb attacks attributed to unspecified loyalist groups, which the UVF were very likely to be responsible for given the UDA’s comparative lack of capability, the figure becomes 164 and 164 – a clear 50/50 split between gun/other and bomb. The true picture is still not revealed as a number of those shot died in attacks in which a bomb of some kind was also used, eg. the YCV attack on Conway’s in 1975. But the most compelling statistical analysis reveals that only one bombing carried out in this period resulted in the death of a republican activist. In spite of planting hundreds if not thousands of them, the bombs of the UDA and UVF killed just a single member of a republican paramilitary group: Ronnie Trainor, an INLA volunteer from Portadown who died in 1975 (note: in his book Voices From the Grave Ed Moloney identifies Patrick McKee, killed by a UVF car bomb in 1972, as an IRA member, although this cannot be conclusively verified). Of course, selective assassination was never the intent when it came to explosives. Rarely if ever are car and pub bombs directed at specific individuals. Rather they are violent gestures, played out in public through the medium of high explosives, designed to make political points or inflict suffering on a large scale, or to achieve the former by way of the latter. When the IRA began bombing prestige targets on the British mainland it was political rather than material damage they calculated to bring about. Similarly, the mass slaughter of Dublin and Monaghan was the UVF’s way of communicating to the Irish government with maximum force that there would be no Council of Ireland, and to stay out of Ulster’s affairs.
By the early 90s the loyalist bomb campaign of the 1970s had largely faded from popular memory and the minds of those in the media. The loyalist paramilitaries were dismissed as being too amateurish or unskilled to create such devices. Indeed, it was a joke among British soldiers of the time that one could tell when loyalists were preparing a bombing offensive because Meccano sets would disappear from the shelves. Yet by the start of 1994 loyalists would be responsible for 30% of all bombings in Northern Ireland. As this joke was being shared, those prepared to oppose a united Ireland with violence were once again gathering the skills and material needed for a new offensive, and as before it was the largely the UVF who would do so.
Although sometimes referred to as the loyalist equivalent of Semtex, Powergel is a less than ideal substitute for the powerful Czech compound which achieved such notorious association with the IRA. Without a powerful foreign backer like Libya, loyalists had to look closer to home for their supplies. As in the 1960s and 70s, the quarries and mines of the UK provided the best opportunity for procurement, and at some point in the early 90s a significant quantity of Powergel was stolen from a site in Great Britain.
Semtex-H is a specialised plastic explosive consisting of PETN and RDX which is particularly suitable for military applications. Powergel, manufactured by Orica UK Ltd, is actually an industrial blasting agent most commonly used in open cast coal mines and quarries. While its grey, putty-like appearance superficially resembles military plastic explosive, it is in fact an updated form of that old terrorist favourite, ammonium nitrate. Packaged emulsion explosives, of which Powergel is one, combine ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel (and sometimes other substances such as aluminium powder) with an emulsifying agent to produce a more compact, powerful (for bulk), easily-handled, and water-resistant form of the explosive that can be manufactured in sausage-shaped lengths sheathed in plastic.
Compared to Semtex, Powergel is bulkier yet less powerful for a given weight. It is also somewhat more difficult to detonate, while its optimization for heaving rock and coal means it lacks Semtex’s all-important shattering effect. The main disadvantage of Powergel however is its limited shelf-life and comparative lack of stability. Like all plastic explosives, Semtex will eventually lose its plasticity, becoming brittle and dry with age, a process that may take as much as 20 years or more. Powergel, on the other hand, has a recommended shelf-life of just six months under ideal conditions. When stashed away in less than ideal lofts, shopping bags, sealed oil drums underground, or other typical paramilitary caches, it is likely to be less, and removing it from its packaging – when making a booby trap or coffee-jar bomb for example – causes it to degrade rapidly, giving off a strong ammonia smell.
But for all that, Powergel was more than adequate for the UVF’s needs. It was powerful, versatile, easy to use, and most importantly they had a lot of it. The organisation had made a conscious decision to return to bombing nationalist and republican targets: it would not be long before they did.
The resumption of bombings took place against the backdrop of a vicious campaign of violence by loyalists. Since 1988 both the UDA and UVF had drastically increased their activities across the country, killing not only uninvolved Catholics but for the first time significant numbers of Sinn Fein workers and councillors, IRA members, and republican ex-prisoners. The families of republican activists were also increasingly targeted, a tactic which was particularly demoralising for the movement as a whole. Most of the bomb attacks would take place outside Belfast, particularly in the killing zone of Mid-Ulster, mirroring the UVF’s remorseless assassination campaign there.
The first casualty of the renewed campaign died on the 29th January 1993. Martin McNamee was the first Catholic to be killed as a result of a loyalist bomb for a decade. The plumber died at a house in Cookstown, Co Tyrone where he was carrying out contracting work and which was owned by a man who had been charged with terrorism offences. A grenade connected to a tripwire activated as he entered the front door, killing him instantly and wounding another man. The grenade was part of the UVF’s share from the 1988 shipment which had been imported from the Lebanon by it, the UDA, and Ulster Resistance via US and Maronite arms dealers. It was not until the following year though that true bombs started to be used again. In February 1994 a bomb was exploded at the home of a Catholic family in Portadown, injuring an RUC officer. The next month the town experienced another UVF bombing, when a well-constructed booby-trap device hidden in a hollowed-out breeze block killed Francis Brown in an attack intended for his brother. He died a few hours before the IRA carried out the second of its brazen but unsuccessful mortar attacks on Heathrow Airport.
On the same day that Francis Brown was killed the army defused a UDA pipe bomb which had been planted at the head offices of the SDLP in Belfast. UDA units were also active in firebombings at this time. They planted incendiary devices at a number of locations in the Republic, including one in a fabric store near Dublin’s Connolly Station on the 29th of March 1992. These “cassette bombs” consisted of smokeless powder from shotgun cartridges, a small container of lighter fuel, and ground match-heads which were initiated with a camera flash on an alarm clock timer. Though crude, these devices resulted in hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of damage and caused great anxiety among Irish citizens fearful of loyalist violence. Other bids by the largest loyalist paramilitary group were less successful. It tried to blow up houses in West Belfast and Downpatrick using vans filled with butane gas from domestic cylinders, a primitive attempt which failed completely. Its pipe bombs and small anti-personnel devices were more successful, however, causing a number of serious injuries.
By the end of June 1994 the IRA had carried out 108 bombings in Northern Ireland, while loyalists were responsible for 63. The UVF became more and more confident in its attacks against republicans and across the border. It began sending letter bombs to republican activists. One of these seriously injured Jim Murnan, election agent for Sinn Fein councillor and former IRA gunman Brendan Curran, at his home outside Newry (Curran had been badly wounded in a previous UVF murder attempt). A parcel bomb hidden inside a book was intercepted before it could reach Irish Foreign Minister and future Tánaiste Dick Spring. It also relayed a threat to launch a bombing campaign in the Republic to the Irish government through its intermediary Chris Hudson. This was no idle menace. More parcel bombs appeared, this time in the Parnell Square offices of Sinn Fein, the detonator of one exploding and injuring an Irish Army ATO as he attempted to defuse it. This was merely an entree to a far more serious bid to kill republicans and Catholics. On the night of 21st May 1994 a republican prisoners fundraiser was taking place in the upstairs lounge of the Widow Scallan’s pub in Dublin’s Pearse Street. Late in the evening a UVF team from East Belfast entered the bar to plant a 20lb Powergel bomb in a holdall. They shot dead doorman Martin Doherty and seriously wounded Paddy Burke before planting the device in the doorway (the favoured location for pub bombs) and making their getaway. Only the detonator exploded: had the bomb worked properly, it is almost certain that most of those in the upstairs lounge would have been killed. Doherty was a member of the IRA’s Dublin Brigade. The republican movement is skilled at creating instant martyrs, and Doherty was depicted as a hero whose selfless actions had saved the lives of those in the pub that night. In truth the bombers managed to plant their device successfully, and it was only its failure to function correctly which spared those at the fundraiser. It has since been claimed that before being handed to the bomb team the Powergel was replaced with an inert putty by a Special Branch operative in the UVF. It is said that this was none other than “Agent Roxy”, better known as mass murderer Mark Haddock. Given the degree to which all paramilitary groups were penetrated in the early 90s, it is likely that the failure of some devices to initiate properly was indeed a result of tampering by security forces. At the same time, however, improper storage and handling must also have accounted for some of the failures. A “squib shot” which strongly suggested security force tinkering was also the result of a UVF shoebox bomb on the Belfast to Dublin train later that year.
The abortive job on Widow Scallan’s demonstrated that the UVF was playing a dangerous game. In its war against the IRA it was prepared to kill not only active republicans but the many casual sympathisers who would have been there at the time, not to mention totally uninvolved civilians who simply happened to be at the bar that night. This unavoidably raised the spectre of the dreadful tit-for-tat pub bombings of the mid-70s, since the IRA would have been under tremendous grassroots pressure to avenge the attack had it been successful. As it was, in July and August of ’94 the IRA did indeed plant bombs outside Protestant pubs for the first time since the mid-1970s. No one was killed as a result and at least one of the bombs was defused, but it raised tensions during the already tense summer months.
Other UVF devices performed better than their efforts down south. Two days after the attempt at Widow Scallan’s the UVF in Belfast let off a sophisticated radio-activated bomb with a listening device – probably a baby monitor or walkie-talkie – outside Sinn Fein’s offices in Belfast Council chambers. It was one of four bomb attacks directed against Sinn Fein in three days. On August the 20th a similar device was placed at the home of a republican in Newcastle, Co Down but not initiated due to the presence of passersby, and the next month a booby-trap was found attached to the door of Magherafelt Sinn Fein councillor John Hurl. In August, the UVF matched the IRA in technique when planted its first under-vehicle bomb, or “up n’ under”, beneath the car of a republican in Cregagh, and in Antrim a bomb disposal officer was injured removing a similar device.
On September the 1st the long-awaited Provisional IRA ceasefire came into effect amidst jubilant scenes in nationalist areas. Keen to portray the truce as a victory, rather than an abandonment of the core republican principle of physical force that it actually was, Sinn Fein carefully stage-managed these displays, bringing tricolour-flying Falls Road taxis through the streets. Loyalist activity continued however, and on September the 5th, a large car bomb was driven by the UVF to the Sinn Fein press office on Sevastopol Street where, finally, a significant high-order explosion took place. Having successfully carried this out, the UVF could move to its own ceasefire knowing that the implied threat of similar acts – particularly in the neighbouring Republic – would powerfully reinforce its words in the political war that was coming.
What did the loyalist bombing campaign accomplish? Initially, quite a lot. In its earliest days it brought down a Northern Ireland prime minister and forced operational concessions from the IRA. The highly intensive bombing campaign of late ’73 which led to the latter was achieved with relatively minor loss of life (little comfort to the dead and bereaved). The later pub bombings and treacherous booby traps had little if any higher political goal. They were carried out purely in the spirit of revenge and retaliation, even if that retaliation was pre-emptive…a less paradoxical concept than it first seems when one has some understanding of the nature of the conflict. Many attacks, particularly in the ’74-’77 period, were carried out with no purpose other than to murder large numbers of people whose only crime was to be Roman Catholic. As noted in part one, it was the Provisional IRA who initiated this tactic, and despite this article’s focus on loyalist activities it must be remembered that in bombings of all kinds the major republican group greatly surpassed both the UDA and UVF combined. That, of course, does not justify the response. There is much anecdotal evidence to suggest that loyalist killings distracted the security forces from their principal job of containing the IRA.
In providing reasons for its bombing campaign the IRA always held the propaganda advantage. It could carry out bombings against “economic” targets that killed large numbers of bystanders, and which were then explained away as “accidents” – if the accidents helped destabilise the state, so much the better. It could place car bombs outside police stations and army bases in Protestant areas which just happened to blow the roofs off every house in a half-mile radius – coincidentally, of course. But while the large republican support base which extended internationally could readily accept the IRA’s rationalisations and self-exculpation for actions which pushed the boundaries for what a purported movement of national liberation could do in the name of Ireland, the Provisionals did not have a totally free hand. Atrocities such as Enniskillen and proxy bombs directly affected Sinn Fein election results and prison fund donations, particularly from the outer ring of supporters. As such, the IRA tried to avoid conspicuous involvement in bombings which directly targeted civilians from the opposite community, 1975 and ’76 excepted. It could only act in a sectarian fashion with a nudge and a wink.
Loyalists did not operate under such restrictions. Their overseas support was confined to the Orange communities of central Scotland, northern England, and Liverpool. In all other regards they were culturally and politically friendless. When one’s constituency is formed entirely from a hard core who will continue to rattle tins and smuggle gelignite regardless of how many pubs you bomb, there is little external pressure to shun such acts. This was terrorism at its most simple, brutal, and vengeance-filled, stripped of the Pearsian rhetoric of the Provos. Hitting back at the Rebels, or Dublin, was as complex as the reasoning got. If nothing else, the history of the loyalist bombing campaign shows us that in tribal conflict people not only fashion bombs from what they find most readily to hand, but their justifications and morality from similar material.
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Loyalists, Peter Taylor (2000), Bloomsbury, ISBN 0-7475-4519-7
UVF, Jim Cusack & Henry McDonald (2000), Poolbeg, ISBN 1-85371-687-1
UDA, Jim Cusack & Henry McDonald (2005), Penguin
The Shankill Butchers, Martin Dillon (1990), Arrow, ISBN 0-09-973810-4
The Dirty War, Martin Dillon (1991), Arrow, ISBN 9780099845201
Lost Lives, David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton (1999), Mainstream Publishing, ISBN 1-84018-504-X
CAIN (Conflict Archive on the Internet)
Provos: The IRA and Sinn Fein, Peter Taylor (1998), Bloomsbury, ISBN 978-0747538189
UVF: An Anatomy of Loyalist Rebellion, 1966-73, David Boulton (1973), Gill & MacMillan, ISBN 978-0717106660
The Miami Showband Massacre, Stephen Travers & Neil Fetherstonhaugh (2008), Hachette Books, ISBN 978-0340937945
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
The Irish Independent
The News Letter
The Belfast Telegraph