Arndale bombing – 25 years on, Manchester still waits for answers

It was the biggest bomb ever exploded in peacetime England: so vast that no building within half a mile is thought to have been left undamaged. Twenty-five years ago on Tuesday, the IRA detonated a device that would rip a gaping hole in Manchester city centre. So massive was the 3,300lb monster – planted in a truck outside the Arndale shopping centre – that the blast could be heard 15 miles away.

No one died that day thanks to a police operation which following a phoned-in warning, and saw more than 80,000 people evacuated in little more than an hour. Yet the devastation was immense: some 216 people were injured, while estimates suggest the cost of the damage was close to a billion pounds. Now, a quarter of a century on from the carnage, one question remains horribly unanswered: why was no one ever brought to justice for the attack on their city?

“I am sure the security services know who did this and I think it got caught up in the peace process,” says Graham Stringer, who led the council here between 1984 and 1996 and who is today MP for the city’s Blackley and Broughton constituency. “It’s appalling. In a democratic society, for someone to blow up the centre of a major city and injure hundreds of people, and then get away with it? It is wrong.”

The suggestion is that, while both Greater Manchester Police and Special Branch investigations identified the prime suspect – indeed GMP submitted a file to the Crown Prosecution Service – he was never arrested because of fears it could derail ongoing peace negotiations in Northern Ireland. The man – later named by an outraged Manchester Evening News – was effectively allowed to remain free without even being arrested or questioned. “I realise to accomplish a peace deal compromises had to be made and amnesties had to be agreed,” says Stringer, whose own mother was injured in the blast. “But justice should be seen to be done.

If bombers are going to be let off then we should at least know who is being let off and why and what the greater benefit of that is… I do think somebody should have been [prosecuted] even if they never got sent to jail.” In the years since, Greater Manchester Police has said there is no longer any “realistic possibility” of a prosecution.

“I think the security services should either say why they are not pursuing it or pursue it still,” adds Stringer. “This was a heinous crime.”

More than 700 buildings were damaged in total. Marks and Spencer and the west face of the Arndale were more or less destroyed entirely (PA)

The day itself – 15 June 1996 – was a bright and sunny Saturday.

In London, that afternoon, England would play Scotland as part of the Euro 96 football tournament. In Manchester, thousands of German and Russian fans were arriving to see their countries play at Old Trafford the next day. It was against this backdrop that just before 10am, a man with an Irish accent phoned Granada TV, Sky News, Salford University, North Manchester General Hospital and Gardai in Dublin to inform them that a bomb had been planted in the city centre.

He gave a location and used a code word known to the security services. In what still perhaps ranks as one of GMP’s finest moments, officers swung into action. The deadly lorry was almost immediately identified – it was parked between the Arndale and Marks and Spencer – and a mammoth evacuation operation carried out.

“Officers worked in close proximity to the bomb-carrying vehicle for a prolonged period,” Chief Superintendent Peter Harris later said in tribute. “They acted in the very highest traditions of the service and undoubtedly helped save lives”. It was, it’s worth emphasising, no easy task. So inured had the British public become to IRA bomb scares over the preceding two decades that people were known to ignore clear-out orders.

One hairdresser refused to let his clients leave his salon because they still had chemicals in their hair, while a group of workmen wanted to stay put because they were on double time for working the weekend. At the Manchester Evening News office, journalists told police they could not leave – they had a paper to get out. Yet as the hour ticked on, the streets and shops did indeed empty.

By 11am, with the evacuation as complete as could be, army bomb disposal experts were on the scene. One of their robots was working on defusing the device when, at 11.17am, time ran out. “The boom – I’ve never heard anything like it and hope I never do again,” says Maurice Swanick, whose family ran (and still run) the central Peveril of the Peak pub. “You didn’t just hear it.

You felt it. I can’t describe it. It came into your gut.”

More than 700 buildings were damaged in total. Marks and Spencer and the west face of the Arndale were more or less destroyed entirely. A neighbouring office block would later have to be pulled down.

The bus station never reopened. Historic buildings, including the Corn Exchange and Chetham’s School of Music, were all scarred and would require millions of pounds worth of renovations afterwards. Part of the roof of Manchester Cathedral was blown off.

“The scene was just devastation,” says Jon Moxham, a lay clerk at the cathedral. “There was glass and concrete everywhere. I remember a chair half hanging out of an office block where there should have been a wall.” The 53-year-old’s parents were visiting him that week from Bath. “When my dad saw it all, he actually started crying.

This was someone who had lived through the war.”

Arndale bombing – 25 years on, Manchester still waits for answers

PC Vanessa Winstanley and another woman help a casualty away from the city centre (PA)

What happened next has been widely praised as an exemplary way to recover from such an attack. The city still held that Germany-Russia football match the next day in a show of defiance, while within a week Marks and Spencer had pledged to build back bigger and better.

The then deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine vowed John Major‘s Conservative government would do whatever was required to turn the carnage into an opportunity, and Labour council leader Richard Leese held him at his word. Together, the pair forged a plan which would ultimately see more than GBP500m invested in Manchester and lead to the creation of its flagship Millennium Quarter. Crucially, too, ordinary people here refused to be cowed.

They showed the same resilience and spirit of togetherness which, 21 years later would be on display following the arena terrorist attack. Yet that question of justice never being done remains. Paul Horrocks was deputy editor of the Manchester Evening News at the time of the bomb and editor when, in 1999, the paper named the prime suspect on its front page.

“We made the decision to publish because we thought the people of Manchester deserved to know that there was a prime suspect and that that prime suspect was never going to be prosecuted,” the 67-year-old says today. “That was the basis of our judgement: people had a right to know who had detonated a bomb in their city.” Yet even after the naming, no arrests were ever made. Indeed, because of subsequent legal actions, newspapers cannot name that suspect today.

For Manchester, it means the wait for justice goes on.

“I suspect,” says Horrocks with a resigned sigh, “nothing new will ever emerge on this now.

I think [the authorities’] minds were made up on this long ago.”