Bloody Friday—It Was the Worst Yet

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"Bloody Friday—It Was the Worst Yet"

Provisional IRA Coordinated Bombings in Belfast, Northern Ireland

Newspaper article

By: Bernard Weinraub

Date: July 23, 1972

Source: New York Times.

About the Author: Bernard Weinraub was a veteran New York Times reporter, who served as a correspondent in a number of areas, from the UK to Hollywood. He retired in 2004.


Northern Ireland's descent into political chaos and civil insurrection reached a bloody nadir in January 1972, when British paratroopers killed 13 unarmed civilians during a civil rights march in Derry. Ulster's "Bloody Sunday" provoked widespread outrage and worsened the already perilous security situation in the province.

As a consequence the British Prime Minister, Edward Heath, stripped the Unionist parliament at Stormont, which had governed Northern Ireland since the foundation of the state in 1921, of all of its powers at the end of March 1972. In its place he introduced direct rule from Westminster (the British Parliament in London). Unionists were outraged at the suspension of Parliament and set about leading a number of protest strikes; and while many Catholics welcomed the fall of Unionist-dominated Stormont, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) saw direct rule as further evidence of British intentions to remain in Northern Ireland. As a result, they stepped up their bombing campaign.

In the short term, this upsurge in violence had devastating consequences both for the victims and for republican support. A revenge attack on a British Army barracks in Aldershot had killed civilians rather than soldiers; and another attack in Derry had killed a Catholic soldier, attracting disastrous publicity for the IRA.

Sensing the changing mood of the nationalist community after these attacks, but also believing they were in a stronger negotiating position, the Provisional IRA called a press conference in Derry and proclaimed that they were ready to call a truce. In exchange for a ceasefire and talks, they announced, they wanted the British government to grant prisoner of war status to all of its operatives it held in detention. The government agreed, and the IRA announced a ceasefire at the end of June 1972.

IRA leaders, including Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, then traveled to London to meet the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw, on July 7. At the meeting, they demanded that Britain withdraw from Ireland before January 1, 1975. Whitelaw invariably could not agree with the demand; the talks broke down almost immediately.

The ceasefire ended 48 hours later when the IRA opened fire on soldiers who had been preventing Catholics from moving into empty houses vacated by Protestants in west Belfast. That night, further clashes led to the deaths of nine people including a Catholic priest.

The IRA now set out to prove that the British were incapable of holding power in Northern Ireland. By bringing a reign of terror on the province, they sought to demonstrate that British forces had no control of events.

On Friday July 21, 1972, the IRA set off 21 bombs across Belfast. Nine deaths were caused by two of the bombs, including six people at Belfast's busiest bus station.

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


The July bombings provoked widespread horror and the day soon became dubbed "Bloody Friday." Revulsion at the carnage was barely tempered by the IRA's insistence that the civilian deaths were the responsibility of the security forces, who, they claimed, had not passed on the warnings on time. Nor were further terrorist outrages ever far away.

Nevertheless, attempts by moderate republicans, such as the SDLP, to create a political solution to Northern Ireland's ongoing problems seemed to reach fruition in November 1973. Negotiations between Edward Heath and the Irish Taoiseach (head of the government), Liam Cosgrove, at Sunningdale in Berkshire, led to the creation of a power-sharing executive, which restored devolved government to Northern Ireland on January 1, 1974. This lasted just five months, however, after the assembly was repeatedly undermined by unionist politicians.

The IRA, however, after the collapse of talks with William Whitelaw two years earlier, would mark 1974 as the most notorious year of their campaign of mainland bombings. High profile attacks included the bombing of a bus filled with soldiers and their families, which killed twelve; attacks on pubs in Guilford and Birmingham, which left four and nineteen dead respectively; and the bombing of Harrods department store in London. In Ireland, car bombs in Dublin and Monaghan also killed thirty-three people.

Over the following twenty years, the IRA set upon a campaign of terror in mainland Britain and in Northern Ireland. Despite claiming to only attack military and financial targets, civilians were frequently caught up in their actions.

Only in the mid–1990s would the stream of terrorist attacks start to ebb. Secret talks initiated by the British Prime Minister, John Major, led to a ceasefire in September 1994. This broke down seventeen months later, but a second ceasefire, called in July 1997, proved more enduring. The second ceasefire paved the way for talks on power sharing in Northern Ireland, which culminated in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Devolved government in the province started later that year, and stuttered along through four years of disagreements between the republican-nationalist Sinn Fein, and the two main Unionist political parties. The Assembly was suspended in October 2002 because of the IRA's refusal to decommission its remaining arms and disband, but the ceasefire continued to hold.



McKittrick, David and David McVeigh. Making Sense of the Troubles. London: Penguin 2003.

Audio and Visual Media

BBC News. <> (accessed July 5, 2005).