It is difficult to revisit the IRA bombing of London in March 1973 and not be struck by the irony of the event in Dolours Price’s life.
The IRA had not bombed England since her father, Albert Price and a small group of his colleagues, including Gerry Adams’ uncle, Paddy Adams, had travelled to the English midlands to plant bombs in High Streets and under manhole covers on the eve of the Second World War.
The campaign was, to put it mildly, a disaster. A bombing in Coventry went badly wrong, killing five civilians, injuring seventy and leading to the arrest and execution by hanging of two IRA members, both friends of Albert Price and rather minor players in the bombing campaign.
The remains of the pair, Peter Barnes and James McCormack, were returned to Ireland in 1969, an event which became a prelude to the coming split in the IRA and the formation of the Provisional IRA whose advocacy of violence Dolours Price had enthusiastically embraced.
The next IRA campaign, from 1956 to 1962 was confined to Northern Ireland and took place mostly on or around the Border. So when Dolours and other comrades in ‘The Unknowns’ proposed taking the IRA’s war to London it seemed like a step backwards, an echo of a time when the IRA was weak and inconsequential.
Except these were different times for physical force republicanism. The Troubles were more than two years old, the IRA’s ranks were full of angry young people, bombs and gun-battles were daily events in Belfast, Derry, Tyrone and the Border areas, the organisation was flush with weapons, explosives and money, and the British were desperate for a settlement.
This time, it seemed, the IRA would take its war to the streets of London in very different circumstances than Albert Price and his comrades had thirty-three years earlier.
The operation was organised by the Belfast Brigade intelligence officer, Pat McClure, who also commanded ‘The Unknowns’, and Dolours Price, not yet 23 years old, took charge of the bombing teams. The operation had been approved and the volunteers selected by Belfast commander Gerry Adams; the plan had been endorsed by the IRA’s GHQ and the Chief of Staff, Joe Cahill.
The date chosen for the six car bombs to explode in and around central London was March 8th, the same day that a referendum was to be held in Northern Ireland on its status as part of the United Kingdom. Sectarian demographics – a solid Protestant/Unionist majority – made the outcome a formality.
The British hoped that with their constitutional future settled, Northern Ireland’s Unionists would be in a mood to make concessions to Nationalists, perhaps even agree to share power in government, something which the mandarins of Whitehall – and their opposite numbers in Dublin – had concluded was a necessary prerequisite for political stability and the eclipse of the IRA.
Aware of British and Irish thinking, the IRA operation was designed to act as a douche of ice-cold water over the aspirations of both governments, a violent reminder of the strength and determination of the Provos.
These days the descendants of those IRA leaders have a very different attitude towards a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland. Confident that the demographics are now moving in their direction, Sinn Fein leaders – who head the IRA’s political wing – now seek a new referendum, while Unionists, fearful of the outcome for the same reason, do not.
That is the first irony. Dolours Price went to bomb London to underline the IRA’s rejection of a referendum in a place she and her comrades regarded as a gerrymandered entity, while nowadays many of the same people who planned the attack would enthusiastically embrace one.
The March 1973 bombing attack in London was only a qualified success. Instead of six car bombs just four were brought into the capital and of those just two detonated, one outside the Old Bailey courthouse; the other two were located and defused.
The bombs also caused civilian casualties; one man died of a heart attack and over 100 were injured. Worst of all for the IRA, the entire bombing team, bar one, was arrested as they tried to board planes to Ireland at Heathrow. One lucky bomber was using the gents toilet when the police swooped and made his getaway in the confusion, but the others were arrested. One turned Queens Evidence, but the others were tried, convicted and sentenced to lengthy terms.
The second irony was that the arrest operation was due to informer activity, and up to that time Dolours Price’s life in the IRA, as a member of ‘The Unknowns’, had been overshadowed by her role driving alleged British agents across the Border to their deaths and unmarked graves. Now, thanks to at least one informer, she would go to jail and nearly die on hunger strike.
What we still do not know for sure is how many informers were involved in betraying the London bombing. There was certainly one. His story was told in a memoir of his life in the RUC Special Branch by George Clarke who rose to be Chief Superintendent, thanks in no small way to the intelligence supplied by Poyntz.
Clarke used a pseudonym for the agent – he called him ‘Seamus MacMahon’ in his book – but enough clues exist to identify the informer as George Poyntz, a publican and businessman based in County Monaghan in later life but in 1973 ‘an amateur car repairer’, in George Clarke’s words, whose cover was not blown for another decade.
Poyntz had worked for the Irish Special Branch during the 1956-62 IRA campaign and when the Troubles broke out in 1970-71 he resumed his treacherous activities, selling his information to both the Irish and British intelligence services as well as to the Loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Defence Association.
Poyntz’s task in the planning of the London bombs was to respray the six cars which were to ferry the bombs to England. In the process he learned enough about the plan to know who was involved and when it would happen – and crucially, that the bombing team would return to Ireland by airplane from Heathrow airport.
On the eve of the bombing he contacted George Clarke to sell his information, naming the Price sisters amongst those involved.
The original plan was to set off six car bombs in London and when the bombing teams arrived at the ferry all went well until the fourth car was heavily screened by security staff. Spooked by this, Dolours Price decided to leave the fifth and sixth car bombs behind on the basis that the risk of detection would put the entire operation in jeopardy while four car bombs would make the point as effectively as six.
She then phoned Belfast looking for Gerry Adams to tell him the news. Adams was not available and her message – ‘Tell Gerry it’s just four’ – was given to the person who answered, a veteran republican from east Belfast, to pass on.
George Poyntz did not know this and he could only have told Clarke that there would be six car bombs.
But when the bombers were being questioned after arrest, it became clear that the police in London were expecting just four car bombs. How did the police know that unless either the phone line to Belfast had been tapped, or another informer had been at work?