This post, marking the 40th anniversary of the Aldershot bombing, was published earlier on the Biteback website. But as its author, Douglas Murray, is a regular here on Coffee House, and as its subject matter is so important, we thought we'd re-post it here:
The 30th January this year was the 40th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the day when members of the British Parachute regiment shot dead fourteen civilians on the streets of a British city. The constant commemoration of that day by families of the dead and injured was one of the things that kept its memory alive and eventually led to the British government setting up the Saville Inquiry. That inquiry – the longest and costliest in legal history, and the subject of my recent book – exonerated the dead and accused some people still living.
What is less likely to be commemorated is what happened a few weeks later. For forty years ago today, on 22 February 1972, the IRA got in their first full-scale retaliation to Bloody Sunday. Their target was the Parachute Regiment’s headquarters at Aldershot.
At that time the barracks were publicly accessible and the Official branch of the IRA drove in a car-bomb and left it outside the officers’ mess. It detonated around lunchtime. The mess building was flattened, but the regiment were away.
Seven people were killed in the blast. Of them the only person killed who was in the Parachute regiment was thirty-eight year old Gerry Weston – the regiment’s Catholic chaplain. Only a week before the blast Father Weston had been awarded the MBE for his work in Northern Ireland. That work – which had often put him in dangerous situations – had aimed to bring together the different communities in Ballymurphy.
The other dead were a cleaner at the barracks, and mother of an eight-year-old son, Jill Mansfield (34). The tattoo on her arm was the only means of identifying her body. Also killed were John Haslar (58) a gardener, who died from a fractured skull, Thelma Bosley (44), Margaret Grant (32), Cherie Munton (20) and Joan Lunn (39) all working at the barracks as cleaners. All left behind family. Several left children.
Afterwards the United Irishman, the official republican magazine, claimed that at least twelve officers had been killed in the blast: ‘Initial reports confirmed that several high-ranking officers had been killed. British propaganda units then moved into action, and miraculously the dead officers disappeared.’ This was not so. Knowingly or unknowingly those republicans who were trying to excuse the murder of seven people were mirroring the claims made by apologists of those Parachute regiment soldiers who had fired on Bloody Sunday: that high level targets had been hit and a cover-up had ensued. On Bloody Sunday, as at Aldershot, claims of a cover-up conspiracy were an effort to cloak a sordid and un-contestable reality – that innocent and unarmed people had had their meaningful lives pointlessly taken away from them by people too cruel or thoughtless to care.
1972 was the bloodiest year of the Troubles, far exceeding in its final death toll many other years combined. After Aldershot came the Donegall Street bomb, Bloody Friday, Claudy and the first killings by the people soon to be known as the Shankhill Butchers.
There has been a huge amount of criticism, which I go into in my book on Bloody Sunday, about the cost and direction of Northern Ireland’s efforts at truth and reconciliation. Not least among the criticisms is that no Saville-style inquiries have been aimed at acts of Republican violence. Whatever the merits of this argument, it is worth noting that only one person was ever convicted of the Aldershot bombing. Official IRA operative Noel Jenkinson was jailed for life in November 1972 and died in prison of a heart attack in 1976. He did not act alone in taking away the lives of a Catholic priest, and six other people whose names are now remembered only by those they left behind. But one man spending four years in jail was the only justice those families received.
During as well as after the Troubles a hierarchy of suffering of a type was established with some victims more remembered, and some acts more recalled than others. So it seems worth remembering Aldershot today. Not because it is emblematic of any political truth, far less any political point-scoring, but because the victims resemble so many victims of the Troubles: individuals who set out from their homes one morning and were killed for reasons even the perpetrators would soon be unable to justify.