In the early hours of the 24th of October 1990 several volunteers of the Derry Brigade of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army entered the home of Patrick “Patsy” Gillespie in the Lenamore Gardens district of the city. The forty-two year old man, along with his wife Kathleen and their three children, were placed under armed guard while preparations were laid for one of the most inhumane acts of violence to be perpetrated by Irish guerrillas during the three decade era of armed resistance to the continued British Occupation of the north-east of Ireland. Gillespie was employed as a civilian cook in the nearby UK Army base of Fort George and had been repeatedly warned by (P)IRA to end his “collaboration” with the British, warnings that had resulted in a previous traumatic incident at his house. However the Derry man had refused to quit his job, a stubbornness that owed more to the region’s endemic levels of unemployment and poverty than any real political sentiment. With his family held hostage the cook was forced to drive in his car to County Donegal, just across the “border”, where he was transferred by more volunteers to a van containing 450 kg of high explosives and given instructions to proceed back to the heavily fortified Coshquin military checkpoint, on the western outskirts of the city.
Approximately four minutes from the British installation (P)IRA volunteers following the van in a second vehicle armed the bomb by remote control, stopping some distance away. When Gillespie came to a halt at the road-checkpoint, permanently manned by a large number of troops, he tried to exit the van, either to warn the soldiers or to make an escape, or both. This drew a panicked response from the military personnel, witnesses in the area hearing shouted commands followed by shots and then a massive explosion that was audible to people several kilometres away.
Unknown to Patrick Gillespie the vehicle’s interior light had been wired to the bomb-detonator, thus serving as a back-up trigger to the timing mechanism, the opening of the van door initiating the device. In the resulting explosion Gillespie and six soldiers were killed, many more were wounded, while the checkpoint was virtually demolished, along with several armoured personnel carriers. Troops elsewhere in the fortification survived the detonation due to the blast-proof bunker they were sleeping in. Around the vicinity of the checkpoint twenty-five homes were damaged, the result of the UK policy of establishing military installations in or near civilian property with the aim of detering insurgent attacks for fear of inflicting casualties on local “human shields”.
On this day no such fear or concern inhibited the guerrillas as two other strikes were carried out using the same dreadful tactic. The second incident took place in County Armagh where sixty-five year old James McAvoy, also labelled a “collaborator“, was forced to drive a bomb-laden vehicle to the tactically important Cloghoge military checkpoint, near Newry, an operation involving units of (P)IRA’s Down and South Armagh Brigades. However he was warned to exit the van through the window by the volunteer commanding the unit that oversaw the vehicle transfer, rather than using the door, and survived the subsequent blast which killed one British soldier and injured thirteen more. Meanwhile a third attack on Lisanelly British Army base in Omagh, involving a unit of the East Tyrone Brigade, was mercifully unsuccessful when the bomb mysteriously failed to explode, the hostage-turned-driver escaping physical if not psychological harm.
The Irish and British press quickly dubbed the victims of the operations “human proxy bombs”, a not inaccurate description. Utterly barbaric in nature, and undoubtedly war crimes by even the broadest definitions of international law, the attacks have remained the subject of controversy and debate to the present day. Despite all the conspiracy theories, and the claims that they were launched specifically in order to undermine the “militarists” within the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army at a time of tentative, covert negotiations with the UK government, or alternatively to test the limits of those negotiations and what the British were willing to ignore in order to pursue them, there seems little doubt that the “proxies” were hugely counter-productive in terms of popular support for the Provisional’s armed struggle. Certainly the Derry Brigade of (P)IRA, already compromised in many ways, never recovered from the wave of revulsion within its own community following Gillespie’s death, accelerating its downward spiral towards inactivity. There seems little doubt that the coordinated nature of the operations stemmed from planning at a senior level of the insurgency’s Northern Command, and probably far higher than that. Though rumours of internal dissension and reproaches circulated in the months after the atrocities (P)IRA – and those who led it – cannot escape responsibility for one of the most shocking war-crimes of the 1966-2005 period.