IRA Terrorists Bomb British Parliament

In a terrorist campaign intended to force British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, the Irish Republican Army bombed the Parliament building, the symbol of English parliamentary law and government.

Summary of Event

The genesis of England’s claim to Ireland lies in an agreement between King Henry II and Pope Adrian IV in the twelfth century, when the pope granted the king lordship of Ireland. Norman invasions followed and for several hundred years the English maintained and enforced their intermittently challenged power. Terrorist acts
Irish Republican Army;Parliament bombing
[kw]IRA Terrorists Bomb British Parliament (June 17, 1974)
[kw]Terrorists Bomb British Parliament, IRA (June 17, 1974)
[kw]Bomb British Parliament, IRA Terrorists (June 17, 1974)
[kw]British Parliament, IRA Terrorists Bomb (June 17, 1974)
[kw]Parliament, IRA Terrorists Bomb British (June 17, 1974)
Terrorist acts
Irish Republican Army;Parliament bombing
[g]Europe;June 17, 1974: IRA Terrorists Bomb British Parliament[01610]
[g]United Kingdom;June 17, 1974: IRA Terrorists Bomb British Parliament[01610]
[g]England;June 17, 1974: IRA Terrorists Bomb British Parliament[01610]
[c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;June 17, 1974: IRA Terrorists Bomb British Parliament[01610]
[c]Government and politics;June 17, 1974: IRA Terrorists Bomb British Parliament[01610]
O’Connell, Daniel
Parnell, Charles Stewart
Redmond, John
Tone, Wolfe
Wilson, Harold

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a number of Irish nationalist movements emerged. In radically different ways, two Catholic barristers—Wolfe Tone and Daniel O’Connell—greatly influenced the development of Irish nationalism. In 1791, Wolfe Tone formed the Society of the United Irishmen, whose armed actions in 1798 became the ideal for many later Irish nationalists. The United Irishmen’s color, green, was adopted as the national color. Daniel O’Connell, the leader of the emancipation movement, supported constitutional rather than revolutionary action.

On January 1, 1801, the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland was enacted, thereby ending the five-hundred-year-old Irish parliament. The act moved the political power from Ireland to Westminster (the houses of Parliament), and established the United Kingdom. In 1830, O’Connell began campaigning for the repeal of the Act of Union, and he founded the Repeal Association in 1840. For a while, the Young Ireland movement supported O’Connell, but the Young Irelanders left the Repeal Association in 1845 and openly advocated rebellion, a “holy war to sweep this island clear of the English name and nation.” The British politicians used the increased sectarian unrest to justify their refusal to support the repeal. O’Connell’s constitutional approach, however, served as a model for the Irish Home Rule Party of Charles Stewart Parnell in the late nineteenth century and of John Redmond in the early twentieth century.

The English Liberal Party’s third Home Rule Bill passed in 1914 and was signed into law on August 4, 1914. Because the United Kingdom had declared war on Germany six weeks prior to the act’s passage, it was decided that the act would not be implemented until the war was concluded.

Meanwhile, in 1905, Sinn Féin Sinn Féin (a Gaelic phrase meaning “ourselves alone”), a more extreme Irish nationalist movement, was formed. Their initial support for home rule was dropped in 1917 in favor of securing “international recognition of Ireland as an independent Irish republic.” Sinn Féin members won seats in the 1918 general election. In 1919, they established Sinn Féin’s constituent assembly, the Dáil Éireann (parliament of Ireland), by whose order the Irish Republican Army (IRA) officially came into existence. The first IRA campaign against the British administration lasted from 1919 to 1921.

The combined political and military campaign by Irish nationalists prompted Britain to reconsider its view of Ireland as a single unit. In 1920, the British legislature passed the Government of Ireland Act dividing Ireland into two separate states, the Republic of Ireland (Eire), containing twenty-six of Ireland’s thirty-two counties, and Northern Ireland, containing the remaining six counties. A bloody civil war broke out in Eire in 1922 involving “savage atrocities on both sides” until its end in 1923.

The Ulster parliament in Northern Ireland held considerable local powers even though they were circumscribed by the British government. In 1922, in order to contain sectarian conflict and civil disorder, the Special Powers Act was passed and renewed annually until 1933, when it was made permanent. It encompassed a wide range of regulations, including curfews, searches without a warrant, legal forcible entry, and the banning of organizations such as the IRA. The Protestant paramilitary organizations were not outlawed until the 1960’s.

The IRA’s drive to oust the British from Northern Ireland increased during the period 1955-1962 in the so-called Border Campaign. The Protestant Unionist Party won the 1965 election and the Nationalist Party became, for the first time, the official opposition. Antagonism, acted out in civil disobedience and violence, increased throughout the 1960’s. An illegal march from Belfast to Londonderry in October, 1968, erupted into rioting. The following summer, serious rioting resumed in Londonderry. For the first time since 1922, Westminster became directly involved in Northern Ireland when it sent the British army to intervene. As terrorist violence between Catholics and Protestants increased, the Provisional IRA, Provisional Irish Republican Army a breakaway faction of the IRA, was formed.

In August of 1971, the British government introduced internment, the holding without trial of people suspected of terrorist violence. When Harold Wilson’s government ended it four years later in December of 1975, 2,158 people had been interned. The techniques used by the British on some of those detained led the Irish government to enter a petition against Britain in the European Commission on Human Rights. (In 1978, Britain was exonerated of the charge of torture, but was found guilty of degrading and inhuman treatment.) In 1972, the British government assumed direct rule of Northern Ireland, and Westminster’s Northern Ireland Act replaced the Special Powers Act of 1933.

On January 1, 1974, a new power-sharing executive body of Protestants and Catholics took office in Northern Ireland. This followed twenty-one months of British rule during which the death rate from killings had fallen and the number of explosions had decreased. However, the arrival of the year 1974 was accompanied by an event familiar to the people of Northern Ireland. Outside a Roman Catholic dance hall in Glenary, a bomb believed to have been planted by Protestant extremists exploded, injuring five people. On January 2, the government of the Irish Republic announced that anyone seeking refuge in the Irish Republic while accused of murder in Northern Ireland would be brought to trial in Irish courts. For the first time in four years, the IRA singled out an individual by name for execution by imposing a “death sentence” on Francis Pym, Pym, Francis the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, on January 3. The following day, the Unionist Party, the largest Protestant party in Northern Ireland, defeated a proposal that would have allowed Northern Ireland to enter the Council of Ireland.

Throughout the first half of 1974, bombings and terrorist attacks were reported almost daily in Belfast and London. In February, on the eve of the British general election, the Provisional IRA took responsibility for major bomb attacks in Belfast. Election results showed hard-line Protestants had won eleven of the twelve seats in the British House of Commons. March brought renewed violence in London, Manchester, and Birmingham. By May, the terrorism had spread to Dublin, where three car bombs killed twenty-three people and critically injured eighty others. On May 19, Britain declared a state of emergency. When an Irish prisoner serving a jail sentence in England died in June, following a two-month hunger strike, the IRA threatened reprisals.

On June 16, one of the world’s most famous paintings, Adoration of the Magi, by Peter Paul Rubens, was defaced by IRA members in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. The next day at 8:28 a.m., a twenty-pound bomb exploded, injuring eleven people and causing considerable damage to Westminster Hall adjoining the houses of Parliament. Built in the eleventh century by King William Rufus and improved three centuries later by Richard II, the hall was part of the original royal Palace of Westminster and was used for special occasions only. It had survived a fire in 1834 and bombing attacks during World War II. Two thousand people visited the hall daily. Six minutes before the explosion, a man telephoned the Press Association warning of the event. Neither the House of Lords nor the House of Commons were damaged, but for several hours smoke shrouded Big Ben as firemen fought the blaze fed by an ignited gas main. Security at the houses of Parliament and surrounding the British royal family was immediately strengthened.


Death tolls rose during the 1970’s as IRA violence continued and its provisional wing warned that the attacks would continue until Britain declared its intention of withdrawing from the province. In 1994, after years of behind-the-scenes negotiations, the IRA declared an indefinite cease-fire and began serious public discussions aimed at establishing a permanent peace. This resulted in the momentous Good Friday Agreement Good Friday Agreement (1998) of 1998 and the continuation of peaceful negotiations in the years since. In 2005, the Provisional IRA announced an end to its armed resistance. However, the Continuity IRA, the paramilitary group that split from Sinn Féin in 1986, and the Real IRA, which was formed by former Provisional IRA members who opposed the 1990’s cease-fires and the 1998 agreement, continued to pose a threat to peace. Terrorist acts
Irish Republican Army;Parliament bombing

Further Reading

  • English, Richard. Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Covers the history of the organization from the early twentieth century to the early twenty-first century.
  • Finnegan, Richard B. Ireland: The Challenge of Conflict and Change. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1983. An introduction to Ireland’s history, society, economy, government, and politics, and a thoughtful examination of changes during the 1960’s and 1970’s.
  • O’Conner, Ulick, comp. Irish Liberation. New York: Grove Press, 1975. An anthology of major writings dealing with the theme of Irish liberation, including contemporary reports, essays, and stories.
  • Ranelagh, John O’Beirne. A Short History of Ireland. 2d rev. ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. A highly readable, concise history covering pre-Norman to the late twentieth century that presents a clear and objective account of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Contains an excellent bibliography.
  • Wright, Joanne. Terrorist Propaganda, the Red Army Faction, and the Provisional IRA, 1968-86. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. This complex examination of terrorist violence presents the ideology and propaganda of the Provisional IRA.

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Sands Begins Hunger Strike

Anglo-Irish Agreement Is Signed

Ulster Peace Accord

Good Friday Agreement

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