‘Our Nelson Mandelas’ – The IRA’s Balcombe Street Gang
ON May 10 1998, four men made a dramatic appearance on the platform at a special Sinn Fein conference in Dublin. There was ‘stamping of feet, wild applause and triumphant cheering’ during a 10 minute ovation while the men known as the Balcombe Street gang stood grinning with clenched fists in the air. At the same conference, and to great applause, Gerry Adams described the four men as ‘our Nelson Mandelas!’
Twenty three years earlier, on the 22nd October 1975, which incidentally (or perhaps not) was the very same day as the Guildford Four were wrongly convicted of an IRA pub-bombing, a man telephoned the large four-storey Holland Park home of the Conservative MP Hugh Fraser and his wife, the writer Antonia. Their maid answered the phone and was asked what time the MP usually left home in the morning. She answered, innocently, that it was usually around nine. Later that night someone planted a bomb underneath one of the wheels of Fraser’s Jaguar XJ6 which always parked outside his house on Campden Hill Square.
The next morning, Professor Gordon Hamilton-Fairley, a neighbour of the Fraser’s and an eminent cancer specialist at St Bartholemew’s Hospital, was out walking his two dogs. He noticed something odd underneath Fraser’s car and bent down to investigate but not before one of the poodles started urinating against a wheel. This caused the bomb’s ‘anti-handler’ micro-switch to set off the bomb and in a sheet of flame and a dark cloud of smoke, jagged pieces of the Jaguar were sent hundreds of yards in all directions. Hamilton-Fairley’s body was thrown into the Fraser’s front garden but he and his two poodles were killed instantly.
Hugh Fraser, a Catholic, had long been a friend of the Kennedy family and had been due that morning to drive his house guest, 17 year old Caroline Kennedy to Sotheby’s where she was enrolled in an art-appreciation course. They had been delayed by a phone call from another Conservative MP, Jonathan Aitken, and the conversation probably saved both Fraser and Kennedy’s lives. The IRA had been very close to losing much of their, not inconsiderable, American monetary support.
The Holland Park explosion was only one of 40 bombs set off in the capital by the Provisional IRA in a 14 month period over 1974-75. The campaign left 35 people dead and many more injured. The IRA Active Service Unit responsible for the Professors’s death were Edward Butler, Hugh Doherty, Martin O’Connell and Harry Duggan all of whom were in their early twenties and all from the Irish Republic.
After the Campden Hill Square ‘mistake’ the ASU reverted their attention to what they called ‘ruling class’ restaurants such as the Trattoria Fiore in Mount Street in Mayfair which they bombed a week later on the 29th October. Seventeen people were injured, eight very seriously. One American tourist had her scalp ripped off and another woman lost her foot while others were scarred for life, lacerated by razor shards of flying glass. On November 18th it was the turn of Walton’s restaurant on the corner of Walton Street and Draycott Avenue in Chelsea. A stolen Cortina screeched to a halt outside the restaurant and a five pound bomb containing ball-bearings and bolts was flung threw the window. With a crash it landed on a table where two couples were dining. Two of them were killed instantly in the blast and the other two sustained terrible injuries. After a period of silence all that could be heard from the restaurant were women and men screaming and moaning in pain.
By now Londoners, if not panicking, were starting to think twice about going for something to eat in Chelsea or the West End. Restaurants, much less common than today of course, were becoming virtually empty. There was a sense of public helplessness at the situation.
At a press conference Ross McWhirter, who with his brother Norris was co-founder of the Guinness Book of Records and known for his right-wing views, presented a pamphlet called “How to stop the bombers”. He argued that the British government had been unable to cope with the terrorists as they were too concerned with civil liberties. McWhirter advocated that all Irish Republic citizens who were living in Britain should have to register with their local police and be issued with a pass if they wanted to leave and enter Britain. He also advocated that IRA bombers should be charged with treason instead of murder so they could be executed.
Not long after the press conference, on the 27th of November, Duggan and Doherty staked out McWhirter’s house in Enfield. When Mrs McWhirter arrived home they confronted her with two hand guns and demanded her keys. She ran past them and rang the house’s doorbell. When Ross opened the door, Duggan shot him in the abdomen and then at point-blank range in his head. Leaving him bleeding profusely on his doorstep they made their escape in Mrs McWhirter’s blue Ford Granada. Ross McWhirter died not long after he was admitted to hospital and Duggan later said:
“He thought it was the Wild West. He put a price on our head. The man thought he was living in Texas.”
By now the IRA ASU were acting as if it was the Wild West. To many people it seemed that they were able to drive round bombing and brazenly shooting at ‘ruling class’ restaurants and hotels at will. The police, however, realised there were patterns to the bombing and the bombs were being activated in the same areas of London. Under the name Operation Combo it was decided that un-armed plain-clothes police should flood Chelsea and the West End looking out for anything unusual.
On the 6th December 1975, the luck of the ASU ran out. The gang had stolen a blue Ford Cortina but were spotted by Police Constable John Cook who noticed that they were driving unnaturally slowly. The policeman, incredulously watched them open fire with a Sten gun at Trattoria Fiore, the Mount Street restaurant they had attacked less than four weeks earlier.
After hearing the PC’s radio call two unarmed Detective Inspectors John Purnell and Henry Dowswell followed the Cortina in a waved down black cab. Presumably the taxi driver didn’t know that he was being asked to follow a car of heavily-armed terrorists, however the gang soon abandoned their car near Marylebone Station. The bombers started exchanging gunfire with armed police who were arriving on the scene and shocked members of the public were literally diving out of the way of the bullets.
In a council flat at 22b Balcombe Street an elderly couple called John and Sheila Matthews were watching an episode of Kojak. They both presumed that the loud gun shots they could hear were coming from their television. All of a sudden the four Irish terrorists burst in through the front door and took the couple hostage. Mr Matthews had his legs tied together with his wife’s tights while Mrs Matthews was dragged into the hall with a gun at her throat by Harry Duggan. He shouted at the police entering the building: ‘Fuck off, you bastards!’.
The police surrounded the building and with a telephone dropped into the flat and loud-hailers from outside continually talked with the Irishmen in first floor flat. For several days the terrorists, however, refused food both for themselves and their hostages. The chief negotiator for the Metropolitan police, Peter Imbert, who would later become the Metropolitan police commissioner, told the gang that they were betraying Wolfe Tone – the father of Irish republicanism – to which Duggan angrily threw the negotiating phone out of the window.
On the sixth day, with the gang becoming hungrier and hungrier, some sausages, brussels sprouts, potatoes and tinned peaches and cream were lowered down to the flat by the police. That is all it took and within 25 minutes the whole gang had surrendered.
The IRA ASU were quickly given the suitably Wild-West style moniker – The Balcombe Street gang – and they had been responsible, in a ferocious, bloody burst of IRA activity during five months in 1975, for 15 deaths and dozens of serious injuries. During the sentencing for their crimes the bearded 26 year old Hugh Doherty, grinned and gave a clenched fist salute. Edward Butler bowed his head in silence but gave the judge a defiant V-sign as he was taken to his cell. Martin O’Connell shouted ‘Up the Provos!’ While Harry Duggan, the man who had shot Ross McWhirter in the head in front of his wife, looked pale and tense but said, “I don’t want to listen to any of this English rubbish – I wish to make a statement from the dock, I am not going to listen to what you have to say. I will continually interrupt you…” He didn’t though, and was from then on silent.
Sir Hugh Fraser, the original target of the IRA ASU died of lung cancer in 1984. His wife, Antonia, had left him to marry Harold Pinter for years earlier in 1980. His house-guest, Caroline Kennedy, has recently become the first female American Ambassador to Japan.
The murdered oncology professor has a plaque in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, the inscription of which reads:
Gordon Hamilton-Fairley DM FRCP, first professor of medical oncology, 1930-75. Killed by a terrorist bomb. It matters not how a man dies but how he lives.
In May 1998, four days after the Balcombe Street gang were being feted in Dublin, and twenty three years after they had murdered her father, Diana Hamilton-Fairley, now a doctor but at the time of his death a 19 year old medical student, spoke at a Belfast conference in favour of the Good Friday agreement. She said that she accepted the early release of the gang as part of the agreement and that she was aware that the peace process would be long and painful. She added:
All sides will have to give up some of their most precious tenets in order to gain the ultimate goal of peace. It was incredibly hard for me last Sunday to see my father’s killers walk into that Sinn Fein gathering. They are alive, and my father is dead. Nothing can change that: nothing will bring him back.