End of the IRA Balcombe Street siege
Four fugitives, two hostages, a car chase and a shoot-out; details of the Balcombe Street Siege read like a Hollywood script. Amid a tableau of bombings and executions, the six days of the siege in Marylebone were perhaps the most tense and dramatic of all the IRA’s activity, the crisis played out in front of a television audience of millions.
Mid-seventies London had long grown accustomed to the fear of bombings. The IRA’s campaign had arrived in the nation’s capital, immediately increasing tensions among the security forces. 35 people had died between 1974 and 1975, and there was no sign of any ceasefire, and then on 6th December, what began as a car chase ended in a hostage crisis in central London. A huge undercover police operation had been put in place to track an IRA cell down. Scotts Restaurant, Mayfair , had been bombed a month earlier, and police surveillance on the building witnessed shots being fired into the restaurant from a stolen Ford Cortina. The men responsible were a notorious IRA active service unit and with the police in pursuit, a desperate car chase careered round London’s West End . The police had commandeered a taxi cab, and unarmed, dodged bullets and traffic, eventually chasing the IRA unit into a block of flats on Balcombe Street.
Flat 22B was home to John and Sheila Matthews. Their front door was rushed and both were taken hostage – John Matthews was tied up with a pair of his wife’s tights while the gang demanded a safe passage to Ireland. That was only ever to remain a demand, and a stand-off ensued that would last the best part of a week. Chief negotiator on behalf of the police was Peter Imbert. He applied pressure on them to release the hostages, feeding their captors false information and denying them food. After six days the Balcombe Street gang surrendered.
Eddie Butler, Hugh Doherty, Harry Duggan and Joe O'Connell, were arrested and tried at the Old Bailey on seven counts of murder and conspiracy to cause explosions. Found guilty, they would spend the rest of their lives in prison. They were released under the Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998.
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