MI5 blamed BP for security lapse before IRA bomb attack on Queen at Sullom Voe

The Queen meets construction workers during her visit to open the Sullom Voe oil terminal in May 1981. Click on image to enlarge.
The Queen meets construction workers during her visit to open the Sullom Voe oil terminal in May 1981. Click on image to enlarge.

BP was blamed by MI5 for the lapse in security which allowed the Provisional IRA to plant a bomb in an attempt to assassinate the Queen at the official opening of the Sullom Voe oil terminal, according to the new authorised history of the service.

The company was accused of baulking at the seven-figure cost of special measures recommended following a reconnaissance visit by an MI5 officer to protect Her Majesty during her visit to the terminal on Saturday 9th May 1981.

No-one was hurt when the 7lb device detonated inside the power station at around noon that day as the Queen, Prince Philip and King Olav of Norway listened to the countries’ national anthems at the inauguration ceremony in the engineering services building 500 yards away.

Indeed, few people heard the explosion at all and it was not until the Sunday evening that the police confirmed that there had been one. The disclosure that it had been caused by a bomb was made in a statement four days later, although the IRA had repeatedly claimed responsibility.

It was the IRA’s only attack on Scottish soil, the group having exploited the fact that a large number of the construction workers at Sullom Voe were Irish, including several Republicans, to mount an attack on Britain’s head of state. The bomb had been posted to what MI5 described as a “Republican militant” who had worked at the terminal for two years.

It came at a time of heightened tension in Northern Ireland. Four days earlier hunger striker Bobby Sands had died in the Maze prison near Belfast, the first of 10 prisoners who would starve themselves to death.

The home security service’s unhappiness at BP over the bomb is revealed in papers seen by Cambridge University historian Christopher Andrew, for his book The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5.

Professor Andrew writes: “A C [Protective Security] Branch officer, who was present at the opening ceremony, had previously paid several visits to Sullum [sic] Voe, producing a report on protective security which had been agreed by both BP and Whitehall’s Office Committee on Terrorism.

“It included a specific recommendation for the security of the power station. BP, however, baulked at the cost of implementing all the recommendations, which ran into seven figures, and detailed discussions were still continuing at the time of the attack.

“Cost remained, as it had been for the past decade, the main obstacle to implementing the Security Service’s protective-security recommendations in the private sector.”

Professor Andrew also reveals that a second bomb arrived after the first had been planted, either by the Republican militant or an accomplice.

“Subsequent police inquiries established that two parcels, each containing a bomb, had been posted to a Republican militant working on the construction of the terminal.

“When the second parcel was delayed in the post, he appears to have panicked, believing that it had been intercepted en route, and fled without collecting either his cards or his bonus pay for two years’ service at the construction site.

“The Republican militant stayed only long enough to plant the first bomb (or possibly give it to an accomplice). The second parcel, containing a 6lb bomb and a 12-day timing device, arrived after his departure and remained uncollected in the construction village post office until, absurdly, it was forwarded to (but failed to reach) his address in Northern Ireland.”

A BP spokesman was quoted in Scotland on Sunday at the weekend as saying: “I don’t think it was ever established that it was a bomb.” However, according to a statement issued by Northern Constabulary four days after the explosion “initial examination of the material at the Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment, Woolwich, has revealed that the damage was caused by high explosive and it is apparent that a device was placed in the power station”.

BP’s own statement three days after the incident said: “BP as terminal operator has completed exhaustive investigations at the site of the explosion and has concluded that there was no evidence of an equipment malfunction.”


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