Forty years ago, in October 1974, five people were killed in an explosion that ripped through a pub in Guildford; just over a month later, twenty-one were killed in two separate explosions that ripped through a pair of pubs in Birmingham. These awful incidents were no accidents. After a slow and gradual build-up of operations in 1973, the IRA’s mainland bombing campaign was unleashed in earnest during the autumn of 1974. This phase of IRA activity in England came at a time when the country was already gripped by a fatalistic conviction that it was trapped in an irreversible decline; all the images of Britain from the mid-70s that have now become a lazy shorthand cliché for summing-up the entire decade – the strikes, the power-cuts, the Northern Ireland Troubles, the football hooliganism, the rise of the far-right – weren’t clichés when they were present tense; they were life as the British people knew it. Even the failure of the national football team to qualify for the World Cup in West Germany was perceived as symptomatic of the overall decay. The same month of the Guildford Bombing, the nation went to the polls for the second time in less than a year, following eight shaky months of a minority Labour government led by Harold Wilson in which prices and unemployment had continued to rise as living standards continued to plummet amidst paranoid rumours of coups from both the far-right and the far-left. To say the UK was a fairly unstable country in 1974 is a bit of an understatement. The previous year’s Christmas hits were upbeat and euphoric anthems by Slade and Wizzard; one year on, the top two positions were occupied by downbeat and melancholic numbers from Mud and Ralph McTell. Coincidence?
My most telling wish as a child in 1974/75 was to visit London; already fascinated and stimulated by the rich tapestry of British history, I wanted to see where so much of it had taken place. But my timing was terrible. Although I had relations in the capital, my dad wouldn’t countenance taking his family on the London tourist trail because he didn’t consider it a safe destination. That seems an extraordinary decision in retrospect, to veto a trip around Big Ben, St Paul’s, the Tower, Buckingham Palace and all the rest because it was deemed to be too dangerous. Today, one would expect that kind of veto from a father if his seven-year-old begged to be taken on holiday to Syria; but London? Yet, his response was perfectly valid. It’s difficult, especially if you’re too young to have been around in the mid-70s, to appreciate how serious the situation was. Bombings had become such a constant threat in London that some compared the situation to the Blitz. Television images of the virtual civil war across the Irish Sea were so prevalent by 1974 that many on the mainland had reached the point whereby their response leaned towards jaded ambivalence; this was, in part, one of the reasons why the IRA Army Council decided to embark upon a concerted effort to export the daily experience of Ulster to the very streets that Ralph McTell was singing of on ‘Top of the Pops’.
When the newly-formed Provisional wing of the IRA sought support within a Catholic community that had mocked the organisation’s acronym as I Ran Away during the first few months of the Troubles, they cleverly lured British troops and the RUC out of the traditional Republican recruitment heartland by bombing economic targets in the city centres of Belfast and Derry. Similarly, when the mainland bombing campaign of 74/75 began, commerce was as valid a target as the military; both Harrods and Selfridges were hit, deliberately disrupting the British passion for shopping, as were the likes of the Tower of London and Earl’s Court, two locations that drew in the tourists and consequently benefitted the British economy. Birmingham had become a ghost town after dark in the wake of the devastating November 1974 pub bombings, and many London businesses soon experienced an equally damaging loss of trade when the public developed a perfectly understandable wariness of venturing into the centre of the capital. Even the postal service suffered following the introduction of the letter bomb. And adopting a combative public stance towards the perpetrators of the campaign at its destructive height could be just as dangerous. When Ross McWhirter, outspoken joint editor of the Guinness Book of Records and co-star of the BBC children’s series, ‘Record Breakers’, offered reward money for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the situation, he was shot dead on his doorstep by a couple of IRA assassins. Beyond London’s borders, the bomb scare soon became a commonplace nationwide occurrence; I remember once travelling to the local Asda supermarket in Leeds for the weekly family shopping expedition at this time, to be confronted by the store’s staff standing in the car-park and police vehicles surrounding the building. It was a bomb scare and Asda didn’t receive our custom that week.
The team behind the majority of the mainland incidents became known as the Balcombe Street Gang, following the dramatic siege that took place at a flat in London’s Balcombe Street in December 1975, in which a couple were held hostage for six days by the cornered bombers. Long before rolling news channels were even conceived, the drama unfolded live on television and finally ended with a series of delicate negotiations that climaxed with the team surrendering and confessing their activities over the past fourteen months. IRA bombings didn’t stop with the arrest of the Balcombe Street Gang, of course – indeed, just over a month later in January 1976, twelve bombs exploded overnight in London’s West End; but the gruesome intensity of the 74/75 campaign, when the kind of heightened terror alert that is today only spoken of by politicians relishing the rush of testosterone was a genuine reality for millions of people, has never been matched since. Because I am old enough to remember when being killed or maimed by a bomb merely by walking the streets of the nation’s capital city was a very real possibility, part of me cannot be thrown into the desired state of panic by constant government warnings of how the country is currently facing its greatest-ever terror threat courtesy of the online bearded beheaders. What happened in the middle of the 1970s was worthy of our collective fear, but I don’t feel the same sense of anxiety now. I should imagine anyone who actually lived in London during that onslaught feels similarly sceptical.
Isolated incidents of butchery and botched plots aside, since 9/11 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, London has suffered one appalling terrorist act – the 7/7 bombings of 2005. Either the combined macho might of Special Branch, the Secret Service and the mighty COBRA are doing a damned fine job in keeping us safe or the threat isn’t as dangerous as we’ve been told.
Are you scared?