The Siege of Queen’s University, October 1971

Adam McGibbon is a writer, campaigner, and a former vice president for welfare at QUB Students Union.

Last year, the old Queen’s University Students’ Union building – with its decades of history – was pulled down. Few know that in 1971, 50 years ago this week, it was the site of a police and army siege, an incident which made headlines across the UK and Ireland – and involved a future British Prime Minister.

BBC Rewind (login required) has preserved the Scene Around Six report by David Capper about the incident.

On 19th October 1971, Tomas MacGiolla, then-President of Official Sinn Fein, visited the Union from Dublin. The university debating society had invited him to take part in a debate on the European Common Market, which Sinn Fein opposed.

After the debate ended in the evening, MacGiolla and his wife left the Union and headed to the car park at the back of the building on Fitzwilliam Street. They found a combined RUC and British Army force who attempted to arrest them.

A crowd of 150 students surged forward to bar the authorities’ way towards MacGiolla, while others rushed him back into the Union. Chairs, tables and anything else that could be found were used to barricade the building as more police and army arrived, completely surrounding the building.

The Belfast Telegraph later reported that fighting broke out among students for and against the barricades being built. Soldiers gained access to one of the Union’s basement bars (later dubbed the Mandela Hall) with a crowbar, but barricades at the bar doors kept them out.

As midnight came, around 350 students occupied the building to support MacGiolla. A hastily-formed ‘Students’ Union Defence Committee’ began to seek support for their stand.

A group of Sinn Fein protesters picketed the British Embassy in Dublin, watched over by a large force of Gardai. Bernadette Devlin released a statement saying that she would use a speech the following day at the London School of Economics to call for occupations of universities in Britain “in solidarity with their fellow students”.

Some of the events were not without farce. The Belfast Telegraph reported that Alliance Party leader Oliver Napier offered to personally drive MacGiolla to the border, but the objections of the RUC scuppered the plan.

A Students Union official managed to call former Home Secretary and future Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan. The Birmingham Post’s coverage of the siege claimed that this 1am phonecall to the Shadow Home Secretary was the key to resolving the situation.

Callaghan phoned the Home Secretary, Reginald Maulding, and demanded to know what was going on. Callaghan obtained the phone number of the police officer in charge at the scene, and rang the Union back to pass it on. This led to a line of communication being established between the students and the RUC.

The students demanded that MacGiolla be allowed safe passage over the border, which the authorities refused. The siege continued all night, with a grateful MacGiolla sleeping on a sofa.

In the morning, with the police and army apparently having withdrawn from the area, MacGiolla and his entourage left the Union, got into their Ford Corsair and headed for the border. Two students followed in a car to make sure they got away safely. An army van followed the students and a helicopter hovered overhead.

At around midday, the Union got a call from MacGiolla from a bar in Dundalk, to say that he had crossed the border, prompting cheers for the hundreds of tired students that had occupied the building all night. The students told the press that MacGiolla left after being ‘given assurance by a high-ranking police officer.’ The RUC made no comment on the matter.

The siege was widely reported across the UK and Ireland. The Stormont Home Affairs Minister, John Taylor, condemned the students’ action. Ian Paisley also claimed that the handling of the incident had reduced the standing of the security forces ‘to their lowest ever’.

MacGiolla remained President of Official Sinn Fein, which was renamed The Workers Party in 1982. He was later a TD and a Lord Mayor of Dublin. He recalled the siege to a public hearing in 2005. He died in 2010.

The Union’s President at that time, Kevin Finnegan, is now a judge.

The old Queen’s Students’ Union building is gone, but its history remains.