December 18, 1974. I had to Google the actual date, to be honest, but I knew exactly where I was at 8.00 pm. I was on a bus going up Blackboy Hill in Bristol on my way to Tiffanys Nightclub. It was the ‘heavy night’ as opposed to the usual disco type music that prevailed at that time. We were happily chatting away about the night ahead of us when we heard a loud thump. What on earth was that? Little did we know it was an IRA bomb.
The strains of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven and Stackridge’s Do the Stanley were fading away at the end of an evening of underage drinking – Carlsberg lager (ugh) and Ben Truman bitter (double ugh) – as we walked to the centre to get a taxi. When we got to Park Street, we were diverted along nearby Park Row. We asked a policeman why they wouldn’t let us go down Park Street. “There’s been a bomb.” Bloody hell.
Eventually, we got home to Brislington. My mum was waiting up for me. She too had heard the thump and now knew that a bomb had exploded. She knew that no one had been killed but needed to know her boy was safe. I was. I missed the explosion by about five minutes. Another week I might now have been so lucky.
Often, we would get the bus to the centre, stop for an underaged pint on the centre and walk up Park Street, usually just before 8.00 pm. And we would walk past Dixons, where the IRA planted the bomb. I remember thinking, as I lay in my bed that night, that I could have been injured, maybe even killed. Unlikely, I know. But the IRA didn’t seem terribly bothered about who they killed and where, despite protestations to the contrary. I never forgot it.
I understand that in order to achieve peace politicians need to speak to some very unpleasant people. When the IRA made it clear it wanted to talk about ending the armed conflict, politicians had no choice but to engage with them. The Good Friday peace agreement came about under Tony Blair, although John Major was involved in the process before he left office in 1997 and even Margaret Thatcher’s government spoke, however indirectly, to the IRA.
What I always found awkward was the enthusiasm with which far left politicians embraced the IRA when they were at the peak of their killing spree. I simply didn’t buy the excuses from the likes of Ken Livingstone and Jeremy Corbyn that they were trying to bring about peace. On behalf of whom, exactly? They had no authority, they had not been mandated by anyone, let alone voters, to meet up with people who were murdering innocent people. I have far more respect for the efforts of Major than any of the comrades.
There is peace now in Northern Ireland and we are no longer at risk of being murdered by Irish dissidents. Hurray to that. After Park Street in 1974, whilst it didn’t consume my every waking moment, I realised I had been slightly lucky. There were some 6700 other people who were not so lucky.
One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, so the cliche goes. It’s partly true, but only partly. And, some 43 years on, I know from personal experience that terrorism works. Our lives have changed dramatically by terrorism, whether it was the IRA or islamic fascists. We might not think we have lived our lives differently because of terrorism, but we have, at the airport, at a concert, even walking down the street.
My life changed forever on December 18 1974 and many others have been shattered and even ended by terrorism ever since. If I’d know then how things would progress, I might never again have left my house.