The British Embassy in Dublin in flames in February 1972 in the wake of what became known as Bloody Sunday (AFP)
Night had fallen and the enraged crowds began throwing gasoline bombs at the embassy. Soon, the whole building was in flames. The scene was Dublin, Ireland, and the date was February 2, 1972. The embassy was Britain's. And it burned to the ground.
The attack had a profound impact on British-Irish relations, as former Irish journalist and onetime government spokesman Sean Duignan recalls. Duignan witnessed the fire in Dublin on that fateful night, and as he tells RFE/RL Executive Editor John O'Sullivan, the events of 1972 may offer some lessons for the Serbs following the embassy attacks in Belgrade on February 21.
RFE/RL: In 1972, you were a political correspondent for Irish radio and television. Can you tell us what happened and why it happened?
Sean Duignan: At some time previous to that, the notorious Derry slaying of 13 people by the British Army -- British paratroopers -- to be known later as "Bloody Sunday" in Irish history, had occurred. Now this created immense fury, you could say, not just in Northern Ireland, but in the south, in the Republic [of Ireland].
And for some considerable time after that, there were huge anti-British street demonstrations in Dublin, in particular. And most particularly, opposite the British Embassy -- a building in Merrion Square in Dublin which was just across from the parliament building.
Now these demonstrations increased in intensity day after day, and particularly night after night, until one night tens of thousands of people gathered. And of course, there were agitators and IRA [Irish Republican Army] sympathizers in the crowd. And suddenly, petrol bombs began to be thrown. They were well-aimed. There was very thin police protection, it has to be said, around the embassy.
[The bombs] were accurate, they went quickly through the windows, and within a matter of minutes, as I recall, the entire building was aflame. It went up in minutes. It was rather spectacular in the night air. It was a strange sight in the very heart of Dublin, right beside government buildings. It had a huge effect on Anglo-Irish relations at the time, as you can imagine.
RFE/RL: What was the impact on the Irish public? Ironically, there was no sense of triumphalism, was there?
Duignan: I was there that night and I suppose the frustration of the crowd and this immense anti-British feeling came to a head that night. Now once the building went aflame, and once it became clear to the crowd that it was going to be destroyed, there was an amazing transformation, I felt, in the mood of the vast majority of the people congregated there. They began to suddenly start moving away, rather sheepishly and in many cases, rather shamefacedly, I thought. They just felt that it had gone that bit too far, I thought.
And the strange thing is, I felt it had defused the situation in a strange way. It was like a safety valve, because the rage of the crowd subsided almost immediately when the building erupted in flames. The following day, there was such mass Irish media condemnation of it, that the demonstrations practically disappeared from Dublin.
RFE/RL: You moved from journalism to politics, later becoming a spokesman for Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds. Can you tell us what kind of effect the embassy burning had on government policy?
Duignan: It had a very sobering effect in Irish government circles. There's always, in all government circles, fear of the street, fear of public demonstrations of this kind. Again and again, in the days that followed, I gathered that Irish representations to London kept insisting that they should be careful about how they treated the northern situation. As inflammable as it was in the north, it could also have a knock-on effect in the south, it could inflame the situation in the south. They were basically pleading with the British not to be so heavy-handed, particularly like the British paratroopers on Bloody Sunday in Derry. And I think there are indications that although the troubles lasted for the best part of another quarter-century, both sides learned a great deal from it. And I think it's important to note as well that I think that was the high point, the apex of anti-British public feeling in the south. There were never again demonstrations of that intensity in Dublin.
RFE/RL: And did the embassy burning have an impact on British policy and London's policies in Northern Ireland?
Duignan: I think the British took account of the heartfelt Irish urgings not ever again to approach demonstrators in the way they did in Derry. And I think there was a genuine attempt by both sides from then on not to inflame the situation by overreaction, despite the fact -- and I stress that -- of IRA depredations in Northern Ireland and indeed in the United Kingdom as a whole.
RFE/RL: Do you see any similarities between the events of 1972 and what happened in Belgrade on Thursday night [February 21]? Can you offer any thoughts on the two events?
Duignan: The only thing I would like to say, and I said it earlier on: it was the apex of anti-British feeling and anti-British demonstrations in the south. Never again did we have anything quite like that on the streets of Dublin again. And I'm hoping that perhaps there will be a similar defusing of the situation among the Serbian population, that it will have a sobering effect on people and that it may act as a kind of safety valve. Undesirable as it was, [my hope is that] it may help to defuse the situation.