The explosion at the Forensic Science Laboratory at Knockbreda on 19 September 1992 damaged over 1,000 NI Housing Executive and owner-occupied homes, with families relocated to vacant properties on Belvoir Estate and in 12 cases housed in mobile homes. For several days, Belvoir Park Hospital provided “soup and sandwiches to some 300 people in the estate, who are being fed in the Community Centre”.
The rest of the file makes for miserable reading, full of summary reports of bomb attacks: Armagh, Stormont Hotel, Drumkeen Hotel, Stewarts Supermarket at Derriaghy, Bessbrook, Glengormley to name but a few. The reports detail the emergency service response, the number of people killed and injured, as well as the likely level of compensation to repair residential and commercial properties.
Another file of papers, this time from the Northern Ireland Office [NIO/28/2/45A], reveals that officials considered the possibility that a European Community ‘disaster fund’ administered by the Red Cross could “provide an additional source of financial assistance to those suffering as a consequence of terrorist activity”.
C Richardson’s enquiry came after “a considerable furore arose over apparent Government unwillingness to assist victims … or, at least, to speed up procedures, particularly for compensation”.
Brigadier J A J Budd in the Cabinet Office replied to C Richardson at the NIO with the advice “that money made available by the EC in the face of major disasters is a gesture of sympathy and solidarity from fellow Europeans to those affected” and “had EC considered such action … they would by now have made an offer” but it would be worth “mind jogging” EC officials based in NI just in case.
The file does not reveal whether a informal conversation resulted, but officials felt it was unlikely that Northern Ireland’s terrorism-related needs would be serviced by a fund aimed at ‘natural disasters’.
Compensation processes and the speed of property repairs clearly came under the intense glare of media and politicians. In the aftermath of the Knockbreda explosion, official D J Watkins noted a ‘political’ ‘problem’:
“… there is clearly a conflict between John Taylor MP and Peter Robinson MP (representing Castlereagh Borough Council). More does need to be done, but we should be alert to the risk of our actions being unreasonably driven by their rivalry.
“But there is genuine political concern, not confined to Knockbreda, about Government responses to civil damage from terrorism; some of which is probably based on ignorance of what is being done.”
Another sheet in HSS/11/71/21A details the Eastern Ambulance Service response to the Shankill Road bomb on Saturday 23 October 1993 which killed 10 people (including the bomber) and injured over 50 people.
The Deputy Chief Ambulance Officer Mr McKee described the scene as “one of the most stressful incidents that the [Eastern Ambulance] Service has experienced in recent times in that two-thirds of the Services’ resources where tied up in the incident.”
A separate Health and Social Services file HSS/32/1/26/1A [PDF] includes a memo from the Eastern Health and Social Services Board two days after the Knockbreda explosion explaining how the Ambulance Control at Purdysburn had “lost both its exchange [phone] lines and its electric power” due to the bomb and had to revert to paper systems.
“In the few seconds that it took for the back-up generator to cut in, our McDonnell Douglas minicomputer hung due to interruption of its power supply. This meant that, at a time when emergency demand was at major incident levels, the control staff had to revert to paper-based systems.”
The memo explained to Director of Planning that “it is now imperative that £15,000 be made available to purchase an unterruptible [sic] power supply, to protect this vital system from any future power interruption”.
Three months later and the need to “upgrade the contingency arrangements of the command and control systems” had still not been realised, and the estimate to supply and install the required UPS had risen to £20,000. However, there was no funding within the EHSSB budget and funding was requested from the Emergency Planning team at Dundonald House.
The history of the Troubles shows that people were often more resilient than processes that stretched patience.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.