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Bus heroes who steered us through the Troubles

Eugene O’Callaghan led the busmen’s union during the worst of the violence, when 17 drivers were murdered and 1,500 buses destroyed. In an exclusive extract from his autobiography, he recalls how four employees were killed in a single day

Tragic day: buses burn in the aftermath of Bloody Friday at the Great Victoria Street depot on July 21, 1972
Tragic day: buses burn in the aftermath of Bloody Friday at the Great Victoria Street depot on July 21, 1972
Total devastation: the IRA set off 26 explosions on Bloody Friday including bombings at Oxford Street bus station (pictured) and on the Cavehill Road
Total devastation: the IRA set off 26 explosions on Bloody Friday including bombings at Oxford Street bus station and on the Cavehill Road (pictured)

By Eugene O’Callaghan

With the introduction of internment in 1971, the situation deteriorated further. Violence increased dramatically with gun attacks and bombings taking place on a scale never before experienced.

Bus drivers were no longer safe from being attacked and also robbed. Whole streets were burned down. Both sides now seemed hell-bent on destroying public transport.

On July 21, 1972, Bloody Friday brought a heightened reign of terror. A total of 26 bombs were planted by the Provisional IRA and, in the resulting explosions, 11 people were killed and a further 130 civilians injured.

At 2.48pm, a car bomb exploded outside the Ulsterbus depot on Oxford Street, the busiest bus station in Northern Ireland. An Austin 1100 saloon loaded with explosives had been driven to the rear of the depot.

The explosions resulted in the greatest loss of life and the greatest number of civilian casualties up to that date.

At Oxford Street, some of the victims' bodies were torn to pieces by the blast, which led the authorities to give an initial estimate of 11 deaths. The area was being cleared, but was still crowded, when the bomb exploded.

Two soldiers, Stephen Cooper (19) and Philip Price (27), were near the bomb when it detonated and were killed outright.

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Three Protestant civilians who worked for Ulsterbus were killed: a young parcel boy, William Crothers (15); Thomas Killops (39) and Jackie Gibson (45). One other Protestant Ulsterbus employee, who was a member of the UDA, was also killed in the blast: William Irvine.

Crothers, Killops and Irvine had been in the vicinity of the car bomb, helping to search for the device at the moment it exploded, killing the three men instantly. Bus driver Jackie Gibson was killed after having completed his bus route just minutes before the blast. Almost 40 people suffered injuries.

These were not just cold statistics to me, but flesh-and-blood people whom I encountered daily in my working life, now just callously blasted to smithereens, leaving behind a long trail of pain and grief.

Jack Campbell, the head inspector when I started with the Ulster Transport Authority (UTA) in Smithfield and who was now the Oxford Street depot manager, was blown onto a flat roof and badly injured, but thankfully survived.

After the funerals, we were contacted by Werner Heubeck, UTA managing director. An approach had been made to the company by Jim Kilfedder, the maverick Independent Unionist MP for North Down, about holding a memorial service for the victims in the bus station.

At that time I had agreed a policy with the company that we would have no dealings with politicians from any side, as they brought us nothing but trouble and were only interested in scoring points.

Against my better judgment, and bearing in mind that all those killed in the Oxford Street bomb were of the Protestant community, I agreed.

After Mr Kilfedder had completed the service, I approached him and put it to him that as we were in the process of organising a collection on behalf of the victims, it would be appreciated if he, in addition to making a contribution himself, would approach his fellow MPs to make a donation.

After two weeks of waiting and having heard nothing from him, I wrote to him reminding him of his undertaking. I received the princely sum of £2.50 as a contribution from him.

Meanwhile, the attacks on public transport continued unabated. Buses were being destroyed at an alarming rate. The injuries to drivers kept piling up.

But it was not only the buses. The violence continued to escalate and got to the stage where you were no longer safe in your own home.

On September 6, 1972, I arrived home and went upstairs to wash and shave when the room was suddenly rocked by an explosion.

I looked outside to see what the cause was. A bomb had been thrown into the hallway of a house across the street; the house was occupied by councillor James O'Kane of the Republican Labour Party.

The early 1970s were taking a toll every day and brought their own harrowing stories. Hijackings, robbery and assault continued. Soon, the intention was murder.

Sydney Agnew was hijacked and his bus burned on the dual carriageway at the top of the Ormeau Road. The police were charging and bringing to court those they believed responsible.

Mr Agnew was summoned as a witness. When this became known, this unfortunate man who had committed no crime was shot dead on his own doorstep on January 18, 1972.

Paddy Crossan was shot dead on March 2, 1973 on his bus at Woodvale off the Shankill Road. His only "crime" was the fact that he was a bus driver, earning an honest wage for his wife and family, a Catholic and a soft target.

Nevertheless, life had to go on. Some sections of the population were growing closer together and working out ways of getting by.

When it seemed it could not get any worse, in 1974 the loyalist paramilitaries called a political strike which became known

as the Ulster Workers’ Council (UWC) strike. Its target was the power-sharing executive whose supporters in the unionist community had been the big losers in the 1974 Westminster elections.

In the beginning, this was largely ignored and people went to work as normal. Workers, however, left their cars at home for fear of having them hijacked and went to work by bus.

Initially, drivers were not harmed, provided they carried out the rioters’ instructions and drove their bus into a position to block the road, whereupon the bus would be set alight. It was later claimed that these so-called vigilantes were only protecting their area.

The failure of the authorities to deal with the problem encouraged the paramilitaries to step up their actions, take control of the fuel depots and escalate their campaign against public transport.

Over the period of the loyalist strike, 44 people were killed in Northern Ireland and the Republic. It is not my intention to take sides, or justify in any shape or form the actions of any particular organisation, rather my intention is to say what it was like to be a bus driver and to highlight the courage and dedication of bus workers who, through their commitment under appalling conditions, brought children to school, workers to their employment and helped maintain a form of some kind of normality for the people of Northern Ireland.

It is difficult for people now to fully appreciate just how exposed and at-risk bus drivers were. Mobile phones and the remote tracking and monitoring of individual vehicles were things of the future. In the 1970s, drivers had no means of communication and no means of summoning assistance.

Even when he made it safely back to the depot, the driver’s problems were not yet over; he still had to get home through the dark and deserted streets. The drivers also had to live in the knowledge that their occupation imposed a tremendous psychological burden on their loved ones.

It is easy to dismiss it now, but think what it was like then. The generality of what was happening on the streets was on the television news every night. Try to imagine yourself into the fears of the wife, the children, the mother, the father watching the burning buses on the news and wondering anxiously if the driver caught up in the hideous drama was the man who had left their house a few hours earlier.

In my opinion, the media did not help by behaving in a way which heightened fears and, in so doing, promoted tensions.

Keeping the buses on the road and moving was critically important. Above all else, drivers maintained the connections of daily life between home and work and home and school. But how we got through those years, I really do not know.

I am certainly not attempting to paint all bus drivers as angels for that was certainly not the case. Of course, they were human and, considering what they had to endure, should it be a surprise if, on the odd occasion, they were to lose their cool?

But you would imagine in the times when bus services were not to the level of what normally would be expected that, before sounding off, a little understanding from members of the public of the problems should be called for.

After all, they were avidly watching their television screens, so they knew, or should have known, what the situation on the ground was like.

Let me give an example. On one occasion, due to a bomb scare, buses were being diverted away from Chichester Street, outside Malcolm’s the jewellers. People were being shepherded away from the area.

One irate intending-passenger, who had been waiting for a bus, was giving verbal abuse to the inspector who was trying to clear the area.

When the bomb went off, showering the area with glass, how did the intending-passenger respond? “You see. You bloody busmen, you’ll get an excuse for anything!”

But maybe this was just another example of that famous Belfast gallows humour that enabled people to survive and stay sane amid the inhuman madness of daily life in their city.

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