Discover more from The Mill
The IRA missed the soul
As thousands fled the city centre away from the bomb, a team of journalists ran in
Our weekend read is by Michael Unger, the highly-respected former editor of the Manchester Evening News, who also served on the board of the Guardian Media Group. Unger is most famous for entering Strangeways Prison in April 1990 at the request of the rioting inmates to act as an independent witness, a story he recalled in a gripping long read last year.
He has been supportive of The Mill (and our sister operation in Liverpool, The Post) ever since we launched two years ago, and today he writes about another major moment in Manchester during his tenure as editor: the 1996 IRA bomb, the anniversary of which is coming up this week.
At the time, the MEN had a print circulation of just under 300,000 copies a day, and on the day of the bomb, Unger and his news team found themselves at the heart of the drama. His piece is a fascinating reminder of how Manchester reacted to coming under attack, and also how big and influential the great regional newspapers were 26 years ago.
Before that — in case you missed Thursday’s edition:
Joshi and Dani appeared on Radio 4’s You and Yours programme on Thursday to talk about The Mill, the future of local journalism, and why we’re investing in feature writing. Listen now on BBC Sounds, and please do share the link on your social media so that more people hear our story and what we’re trying to do. Here’s Joshi’s tweet, and here is our Facebook post, which you can share.
We published a members-only deep dive into the issues at the Royal Exchange Theatre yesterday. “It’s really not good enough anymore,” one source quoted in the story says. “We’ve all spent a long time as a profession trying to be nice, but it’s genuinely getting to the point of saying: ‘What is going on?’”
By Michael Unger
Saturday morning June 15th 1996 and a gloriously sunny football weekend saw 80,000 shoppers fleeing for their lives out of Manchester’s city centre and one person running in — me. The largest peace-time bomb to explode in Britain had just shaken a city full of football fans in town for the next day’s European Cup game between Russia and Germany at Old Trafford.
I ran from my home at the top of Deansgate to the Manchester Evening News office, then situated next to the Rylands Library. I ran past weeping mothers, cut students and confused policemen. There were broken windows everywhere and huge shards of glass littered the streets.
Little traffic moved and the silence was haunting. As I rushed breathlessly through the front entrance, I was grateful to see that, although all the shops and offices nearby had been badly damaged, our building was mostly intact.
Already a photographer had returned with a superb picture — of a mother weeping for her baby as it was carried off by a caring policeman.
Welcome to Manchester
The 7.5-ton Ford Cargo Van had been bought in Peterborough for £2195 the day before by a man with an Irish accent. It was driven first to London, then north, collecting somewhere along the way 3,300lbs of homemade fertiliser and sugar. It was three times as big as the lorry bomb that had blitzed Canary Wharf the previous February killing two people and injuring many more — an attack that had marked the end of a 17-month IRA ceasefire.
The van drove into Manchester around 9am, passing “Welcome to Manchester” posters put up by the Evening News in four languages for the football fans coming to Old Trafford. It was parked on double yellow lines on Corporation Street outside Marks and Spencer around 9.19am — left with its hazard lights flashing in the heart of the shopping centre for two hours without being towed.
The driver and his accomplice, both wearing sunglasses and blue anoraks with hoods up, left the van and walked away. A phone call was made from the Piccadilly area to an IRA quartermaster in Ireland: it was a signal that the bomb was primed.
At 9.22am, a traffic warden put a ticket on the van’s windscreen and 25 minutes later a coded warning was made by the IRA to Granada Television saying where the van with a bomb was. By 10am, Special Branch had confirmed that the warning was genuine and the order to evacuate the city centre was given.
By 11.10am a police cordon had been set up about a quarter of a mile from the van and the bomb squad was on its way from Liverpool. The squad based themselves in a nearby side street called Back Fold Lane. They used a robot to break through the van’s window in an attempt to destroy the timer on the passenger seat and they were seconds away from making the bomb safe. The police were told that there would be two controlled explosions.
They heard the first as the robot pierced the van . . . and then a second explosion at 11.17am, but it wasn’t the controlled explosion disabling the timer — it was the bomb itself.
It left a crater 15-feet wide and those who were reluctant to move earlier ran for their lives. More than 300 people were injured, mainly from flying shards of glass, the one seriously. Buildings were damaged a mile from the van and the blast could be heard 15 miles away.
The first warning I had that there was the possibility of a terrorist bomb in Manchester came at about 10 o’clock that morning when my news desk alerted me at home that the police had received a coded warning from the IRA and that it was being taken seriously. As is normal in such circumstances, nothing was published about the warning in the next edition of the paper (in this case, the first) but we immediately went on alert and a reporter and a photographer were sent out into the city centre.
Soon, I could hear the police helicopter evacuating shoppers. I went to the balcony of my apartment and could just hear the powerful loudspeaker ordering shoppers to leave the Arndale shopping centre — a little over a mile and a half away.
I checked again with the news desk and found that the police had discovered the suspect white Ford. More reporters and photographers were sent out into the city — with strict instructions that they must behave with care and not put themselves in any danger. The biggest danger after a bomb explodes is the amazing amount of glass, some of which can carry on falling out of office blocks and shop windows long after a detonation.
At 11:17am, I was standing on my balcony listening to the helicopter and talking on the phone to David Meek, our former Manchester United reporter, when the explosion occurred — a deafening, dull blast.
I’d heard four previous similar explosions — two in London in the early 1970s at the beginning of the IRA bombing campaign and Manchester’s two big IRA bombs in 1992. The first of these was in Parsonage Gardens not only near the MEN’s office but also near a cafe in which our staff were having a coffee before coming to work; six people were hurt. The second was the bigger of the two explosions, on Cateaton Street, near the cathedral. It was a booby-trap bomb exploding minutes after the Parsonage Garden explosion. In the second explosion, 58 people were hurt, many of them running away from Parsonage.
The staff were all a bit dazed when I turned up at the office after running in. After all, this was the third bomb they had been relatively close to in only 18 months. Two of the young messengers had been blown off their feet as they had been standing near the windows at the time of the explosion and other colleagues had ear problems.
When I saw that the building was unscathed, I asked for volunteers to stay and produce emergency editions of the paper. Because it was a Saturday, we had a smaller editorial staff than normal with about 40 news reporters, sports staff and production editors. On top of which were the usual Saturday number of production, circulation, security and advertising staff. It also meant that the other offices such as HR, marketing and finance were empty. Despite all of what was going on, the editorial staff were calm, but concerned — concentrating on what to do next and behaving with the utmost professionalism. Most agreed to stay, although I sent some home who I considered non-essential.
I told all staff to keep well away from the windows in case there was a second device, as happened the last time the IRA struck. The group was known to set off one bomb and as people fled that site they would run into a second, booby-trap device.
The first two pictures dropped on my desk within minutes of the bomb going off. As it happens they were also the best two pictures I received all day. The first one, by Carl Royle, was of a mother crying out for her baby, taken just outside our office. The second was taken by Paul Sanders standing on Cross Street, very near the white van, and is the precise moment the bomb went off. It is the only picture of the actual explosion. Paul was slightly injured taking the photo but continued working throughout the day and didn’t go to hospital for a check-up until the next day.
The next edition of the paper was due to the printers at 12.30pm, but after talking with them in Trafford Park I decided to bring this forward to 11.50am just to get the news on the street. I also decided to put only a photograph and headline on page one — the one with the baby. I would therefore put all the words inside the paper.
By now the police and emergency services had declared the city centre a “sterile” zone. This meant that the staff could not get into the office — nor could they get out. A young policeman came to my office and asked me if I would evacuate the building, but after talking to our own security staff I decided not to.
The words — and more pictures — were beginning to flood in. And with them came the usual controlled confusion. Were there any dead? How many dead? Did an Army Bomb Disposal man die? Were there any booby-trap bombs? Was there a bomb at the Midland Hotel? One at Piccadilly Gardens?
Amazingly, while plenty of people had cuts of varying severity caused by the glass from breaking shop windows there was only one serious injury and no fatalities. The one serious injury was a woman who was working overtime for an insurance company and whose office was less than 100 yards from the IRA van. She was standing on the bridge across the street linking M&S and the Arndale. She’d heard the warnings but decided to take a look just as the nearby bomb exploded. She was severely cut by the glass windows on the bridge and 10 years later she was still finding glass in her face.
Once again I was asked to evacuate the building by the police. And once again I took the calculated risk not to. “If we close the paper, we are letting the IRA win,” I told a young inspector. There were no more such requests.
The next logistical problem I had was how to get my tired staff home. Those who came in by public transport walked to a special police point where I had arranged for them to be taken home in taxis. For those with cars, it was a different matter. I had heard that the police would not allow cars out of the city centre at all. This called for a little imaginative thinking.
I knew that Hardman Street — at the back of our building and where we had a little-used car park exit — was safe and I knew that the police barrier was on Quay Street only 100 yards away from this exit. So I decided that sheer volume was the answer. At 6pm the affected staff got into their cars, and in convoy 20 cars drove the very short distance up Hardman Street towards Quay Street. There, of course, a bemused policeman let them through.
Getting staff back into the office the next day was even trickier. Technically, we should have queued up at the Town Hall — like all the other businesses that were affected — to get a pass and wait for a police escort to the office. But we knew that this was likely to take all day as there were thousands of angry and frustrated Mancunians waiting, all wanting to see what had happened to their businesses.
So we became even more devious than ever. The news editor ignored the friendly warning of a policeman and ran down Deansgate, convinced he was going to get shot in the back. A reporter waved a parking ticket pretending it was a special pass; another ducked down various ginnels and hoped for the best. In the end, everyone I needed to have got in on time.
Speaking up for a city
In an emergency like this, the importance of continuing to publish the city’s paper came into sharp relief. Looking back, it shows just how many crucial functions local newspapers performed in the pre-internet age. Not only was there an insatiable desire to read and see what had happened, but there was the public information aspect. The city council wanted to inform people what to do and we were the only means of publishing the full list of emergency phone numbers; advertisers wanting to reassure their customers and some just wanting to say thank you to the people of Manchester.
Certain images in the days that followed stand out with clarity:
The queues of lorries carrying shop-window glass waiting in every street available to be called up by repairers.
The postbox standing next to M&S and very near the bomb, that emerged unscathed and became a symbol of resistance.
Sir David Alliance, the founder of Coats Viyella, handing over a huge cheque to the Lord Mayor’s ”bomb” charity and then turning to me at the meeting and asking me to make sure it was spent wisely.
And above all, our brilliant poster that went up around the city within days of the explosion.
They went for the heart of Manchester.
But missed the soul.
Together we can rebuild our city.
Thereafter, my policy was to be as objective as possible for the first three days and then be as upbeat and pro-Manchester as possible afterwards. One of the more amusing stories that came out in this period was the police discovering an old man living in a flat above the Arndale centre who had been in bed with the flu and oblivious to the whole incident.
But we had questions to ask: Who did it, why and how? Why us? Why did the bomb go off? How was it there were no fatalities and only one serious injury? Did the emergency services, the emergency planning unit and the town hall behave professionally?
The only major question mark lay over the bomb disposal squad and where they were based. There had been a political decision to have the squad based in Liverpool as this was deemed a stronger Irish centre. But in reality, Liverpool was more of an Irish safe haven and only one small device had gone off there many years earlier at a job centre — and it wasn’t even certain that this had been an IRA initiative. It took the squad an extra 30 minutes to get to Manchester. This would have given them plenty of time to defuse the bomb because they were only minutes away from doing so when it exploded.
But the prime task for us all was to get a struggling Manchester back on its feet. One of the most important aspects of this was communication by the city council, the emergency services and businesses. Every day we devoted page two to maps of streets closed; the phone numbers of all the many help-lines; safety instructions etc. We supported and participated in the many fund-raising initiatives to help the small businesses affected — particularly those in The Triangle who ran the second-hand stalls and tattoo centres.
One of the biggest groups of small businesses affected were the window cleaners. Most companies that had to close down temporarily because of damage were superb with their staff, but sadly there were exceptions. I sat on the small committee chaired by John Glester that gave out relief money to these individuals and some famous “ethical” companies were not easy to deal with.
But the big stores such as Boots also had their part to play in restoring confidence and one of the ways they did this was by very quickly putting adverts into the Evening News thanking their staff, praising their customers and telling the world that we may have had a big bomb but we’re still open. To make sure that we didn’t profit from the bomb, the cost of all bomb-related advertising was halved and special efforts were made to accommodate affected advertisers.
In the days, weeks and months that followed June 15th we did everything in our power to portray the good news that came out of Manchester. Every time a bomb-damaged store re-opened, we gave it enhanced publicity and we published the stories of the unsung heroes and heroines. We took an active part in the re-design of the city centre, including moving the medieval pubs to a new site.
A real spirit of co-operation took hold; for example the fabulous building that housed the Royal Exchange Theatre was so badly damaged that the theatre had to move a mile away into an old market hall on Liverpool Road. One of the lasting pleasures was seeing our front pages of the incident on builders’ posters in a new city centre street called New Cathedral Street. They were there for years.
We worked with the city council to involve the public in the decision-making over the re-building of the city centre, hosting a key debate with the Civic Society. And it’s important to credit the partnerships between the public and private sectors that were created through the city centre development plans. Immediately after the seriousness of the bomb was known, these partnerships and friendships came to the fore to make sure what needed to be done was done and as fast as possible.
We showed how the small trader was fighting back against the odds. And, we took up the cudgels on their behalf if we thought that they were being let down by bureaucracy.
A key part that the paper played was acting as a conduit between Manchester and central government. On the Monday after the bomb, I had government ministers and local politicians on the phone worrying that because there were no fatalities, the power-brokers in Whitehall would not treat the problem as seriously as we knew it to be. I also had the Prime Minister’s office ring me up saying that John Major would not come to Manchester as he did not want the IRA to glory in pictures of him walking through the debris. This was a decision that really annoyed the Minister for Manchester, Alistair Burt.
At this point and with the quiet help of government ministers I decided to write an open letter asking Major for help — publishing it all over page one. I knew that the prime minister was in Florence for a European heads of states meeting, but Jonathan Haslam, a friend who just happened to be Major’s press spokesman, promised me that he would hand-deliver my letter to the Prime Minister after I had faxed it to No.10. The letter was duly published in the Evening News on the Friday under the headline: Please Help.
Part of my letter was to ask Major to set up a special task force under his deputy Michael Heseltine — and this he did. As a direct result of the letter not only was Heseltine dispatched to Manchester but also significant sums of money were made available for the city’s rebuilding.
Our work was summed up when I read a letter I received from Jim Cusack, a journalist from the Independent who had once worked for the Evening News:
Day to day, sometimes week to week, it’s often difficult to judge what a newspaper really does, what it means and how good it really is. On the Saturday of the IRA bombing, the Manchester Evening News showed how a highly talented professional team of journalists can respond with great speed to an event they can never have planned for. For those who know the MEN, you and your team’s response should come as no surprise. Regardless, I was still very impressed at the editions you managed to get out in the face of such adversity. When so-called news-gathering organisations were still wandering around trying to find fact where there was only rumour and trying to offer hype in place of old-fashioned reporting, the MEN appeared capable of getting nearer to what happened than all the others.
Late on the Saturday in question, I asked, perhaps stupidly, one of the street sellers of your paper, if there was a special edition. He looked at me. Took his time. Folded the paper he was selling, and said: ‘This is Manchester sir, and this is the Manchester Evening News’.
You can’t say more.
A month or so later, the House of Lords debated the restoration of the city centre and it was moving to see peer after peer mention our coverage. Baroness Dean (who as Brenda Dean had been a leading print union boss) and Lord Tom McNally quoted the MEN extensively particularly mentioning the open letter to Major. Lord Lucas, the government minister, said: “I am glad to add the Government’s congratulations and praise to that great newspaper on all it has done since the bomb and continues to do.”
In the months after, we continued our reporting into who actually placed the bomb and when they would be arrested. We came up with a number of exclusives that culminated in a story we ran the following February headlined: “Police know the identities of the bombers.” Sadly after years of further police investigations, the bombers were never arrested.
Also, that February, the Home Office thought that it would be a good idea to hold a private seminar involving all the emergency services, the security services, the business community and the media to be represented by myself. This was to be held at the department’s emergency planning college near York and was the college’s first-ever seminar held to coordinate business recovery.
It was in fact an exceedingly dull two days, the most bizarre episode being when I was involved in a panel discussion with, among others, the group managing director of the Nat West Bank. He happily criticised the media for its irresponsible reporting of major events such as IRA attacks and told this select audience, which included the police commander for Manchester city centre, that the media “don’t publish what we want them to and insist on being truthful, but they are a vital source of information”.
He then went on to say that when a small bomb exploded outside his London HQ he happily lied to the media about the effects of the damage and the commercial effect on the bank. At which point I stood up, interrupting him and saying “And we would then get the blame for inaccurate reporting,” a point the audience loved — my police colleague gave me a big thumbs up.