7 May 2014

‘Descent into terror’: Northern Ireland’s worst year

The arrest of Gerry Adams over Jean McConville’s death has put 1972 in the spotlight again. Channel 4 News speaks to author Susan McKay and revisits the worst year of the north of Ireland’s conflict.

1972 was a year that began with a rally against internment on 2 January, and ended with the arrest of Martin McGuinness on 31 December – now deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.

In total, 3,531 people were killed in the north of Ireland between 1969 and 2001. But 1972 was the worst year by far in terms of fatalities. Of the 497 people killed, over half were civilians. The deaths were also concentrated on certain hotspots, namely west and north Belfast: while some people in Northern Ireland remained relatively untouched, others lost more than one member of their family.

“When people are telling you stories from that time, even the incidental details indicate how hellish it was,” Susan McKay, a journalist and author who has documented the stories of all those who died in the conflict, told Channel 4 News. “There was a sense of a descent into terror. Many people didn’t even get a visit from police when their relatives were killed. It just seems unbelievable now.”

One of the people she interviewed was the west Belfast resident Anne Larkey, whose sister was raped and nephew shot dead by loyalist neighbours in 1972. Ms Larkey recalled leaving the police station only for a group of men to jump out of a van and start attacking them with hatchets. “And that was just a passing detail that she mentioned,” added Ms McKay.

This piecemeal approach isn’t working. And there is frustration and anger among victims about a perceived hierarchy Susan McKay

The tone for much of 1972 was set weeks beforehand, on 4 December 1971, when 15 Catholics were killed by a bomb at McGurk’s bar in north Belfast – one of the single worst atrocities of the period. The UVF took responsibility years later, but at the time security forces maintained that it was an IRA bomb that had gone off by mistake, enraging the nationalist community.

Later in December, four Protestant civilians, including two children, were killed by an IRA bomb on the Shankill Road. The next day, on 12 December, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) politician John Barnhill was shot dead in his home by the Official Irish Republican Army (OIRA) – the first politician to be killed in the conflict. And so the scene was set.

Bloody Sunday

Almost two months after the McGurk’s bar bombing, a civil rights march staged by the nationalist community in Derry descended into horror, and 13 unarmed civilians were shot dead by British Army. Another 13 were injured, one fatally. Tensions were further enraged when the army claimed those who died on 30 January were armed and when the initial Widgery enquiry upheld the army’s account that they were fired on first.

It wasn’t until 2010 that a 12-year-long inquiry concluded that soldiers had in fact fired the first shot.

ITN Reporter Gerald Seymour was there (see video) and interviewed Father Mulvey on the scene, along with Colonel Derek Wilford, who described the shooting as “unfortunate”.

“We came under fire from the bottom of the flats… We were also petrol bombed and some acid in fact poured on us from the top of the flats,” he told ITN at the time. “If you’re being fired at, you return fire. And they (the residents) know that perfectly well.”

In its damning report on the incident, the Savile inquiry proved his account wrong, and concluded that Colonel Wilford should not have led paratroopers into the fray.

Direct Rule

Bloody Sunday is what defines 1972 for many, and it had huge repercussions, with a large number of disillusioned nationalists giving up hope in the civil rights campaign, and pledging allegiance to the IRA.”Money, guns and recruits flooded into the IRA,” Gerry Adams wrote in his memoirs.

The immediate consequence of the killings was played out by the IRA in England on 22 February: the group killed seven people in bomb explosions at the Aldershot Barracks in Hampshire, but instead of paratroopers, their victims included a Catholic priest, a gardener and five women working in catering.

Another IRA bomb in Belfast’s Abercorn bar in March killed two sisters and injured 70 people.

Politically, the increasing violence and anger led to the dissolution of Northern Ireland’s Stormont parliament at the end of March and the region was put under direct rule from Westminster. This was met with outrage by Unionist politicians and NI Prime Minister Brian Faulkner. William Craig organised mass strikes and rallies which halted public transport and caused power cuts in protest at what was considered a concession to the IRA.

Bloody Friday

The 21 July, 1972 subsequently became known as Bloody Friday. In response to the breakdown of talks with the British government, the IRA exploded around 20 bombs across Belfast in the space of around 80 minutes.

The IRA said the intention had been to hit commercial centres, and said it had given notice about the explosions, but nine people were killed including two British soldiers, and an estimated 130 people were injured. The video above shows the confusion caused by the barrage of bombs, as people tried to run from the blasts without knowing where the next explosion would be.

Again the consequences of Bloody Friday were far-reaching. Ten days later, the British Army decided to enter those areas that had been taken over by republican paramilitaries in Belfast and Derry. Known as Operation Motorman, it was the biggest British military operation since the 1956 Suez Crisis.

Photo: British soldiers in the protestant area of Shankhill, Belfast

Jean McConville

The death of the widowed mother of 10 happened towards the end of the year in December. But with so many deaths in that year, and because of rumours that she had abandoned her children and was living with a loyalist, it wasn’t until years later that her name – and her children’s search for their mother’s killers – made headlines.

In Susan McKay’s view, it was a “sectarian” murder of someone who wasn’t trusted by her community in a tense and paranoid period: a Protestant, married to a Catholic, she had been intimidated out of the mainly Unionist east Belfast by loyalists. Then in the nationalist west Belfast, she was again considered an outsider for the fact that her husband had been a British soldier.

And while the arrest of the Sinn Fein leader has sent shockwaves through Northern Ireland’s already fragile political system, turning the spotlight on this killing has also raised the question of how society can agree on a way to deal with the past.

“Politicians have failed themselves to come up with a mechanism to deal with the past, and have put too much of the onus on the police to deal with it. Far too much has fallen to the responsibility of the police,” Ms McKay told Channel 4 News.

“This piecemeal approach isn’t working. And there is frustration and anger among victims about a perceived hierarchy.”