Booms with a view | 

Belfast's famous Europa hotel stars in new book as Troubles home of press, spooks and politicians

The IRA bombed the hotel a staggering 32 times over two decades

Harper Brown outside the Europa

Richard Sullivan

Belfast's Europa Hotel is a symbol of the old and new Northern Ireland.

The iconic hotel came to life just as the conflict was erupting in Northern Ireland and it stands today as a symbol of the city's emergence from the violence that strangled the city for decades.

Today's version is stark contrast to the sand-bagged, barbed-wire-protected hotel of the Seventies as it earned the unwanted tag of being the most bombed hotel in Europe.

It was bombed a staggering 32 times - exclusively by the IRA - over two decades, even more startling is the fact no lives were lost as hotel staff became experts in evacuation and keeping their guests safe.

The book, featuring a bombed out Europe on its cover

The Europa story features in a newly published book War Hotels, an exploration of hotels in wartime, told through the prism of the now iconic hotels that were frequented by foreign correspondents, politicians, paramilitaries and spies in conflicts in Northern Ireland, Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon, Iraq, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

It focuses on the hotels that became closely associated with the brutal conflicts in which they were a part, such as the Continental in Saigon, the Commodore in Beirut and Sarajevo's Holiday Inn.

Construction of the Europa began on Belfast's Great Victoria Street in 1969 just as the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum, with the first brick being laid a few short weeks after the British Army was deployed to the streets.

The English Grand Metropolitan Group hadn't envisaged what lay in front of them.

Soldiers looking over the extensive damage caused to the Europa Hotel, Belfast, following a bomb explosion in 1975

The Europa opened its doors in July 1971, not before it was subjected to its first bomb attack five days before the arrival of the first paying guest.

Four incendiary devices stuffed in envelopes started a fire on the first floor on July 3 that year, setting the tone for 23 years of sustained attacks.

Rather than catering for high-paying business customers, the hotel found itself HQ to a global cadre of journalists. As former BBC war correspondent Martin Bell - who has covered conflicts all over the world - remarked, it became a giant newsroom.

"We journalists loved it," he said, "because it played such an important role in making it possible to report events in Belfast. The management and staff, to their great credit, always assured that we were well looked after."

The 12-storey, 210-room hotel was built with an eye on the luxury and business market but the only visitors to Belfast in those days were journalists.

The hotel even had a dark room on the 10th floor from where images of the Troubles were sent across the world.

The hotel stood and stands as a symbol of resistance to the violence being played out around it.

The book reveals journalists scrambled to book rooms from the fourth floor up as the vast majority of bombs were planted in the lower floors. The repeated attacks earned it the nickname 'hardboard hotel'' as its windows were boarded up so often because of blasts.

And it wasn't just journalists who frequented the place. It was a regular haunt for spooks, spies, politicians and paramilitaries all looking for and sharing information.

At one point British intelligence services set up an observation post overlooking the lobby so they could monitor the comings and goings.

In 1974 the hotel appointed the legendary Harper Brown as General Manager. He steered the iconic institution through the worst years of the violence and was once a prime target for assassination by the IRA.

"We haven't lost a guest yet, we're proud of that," he once said.

During the Ulster Workers Strike of 1974 and with the country paralysed with power cuts, he set up a giant barbecue on the pavement outside, with staff ferrying in food to the candlelit restaurant so that guests could enjoy a hot meal.

In one bomb attack in 1975 a 1,000lb device planted in a lorry parked outside the hotel caused extensive damage. Part of the vehicle's engine ended up in a room on the 10th floor, and it was the only time it was forced to close because of fears it was structurally unsafe.

It reopened a year later.

The aftermath of the IRA van bomb attack on the Europa in 1993

Robin Walsh, then News Editor at UTV, said the presence of the press made the hotel a target.

"Part of the IRA's activities included targeting and bombing commercial premises," he said, "they wanted to make Northern Ireland ungovernable, get the British out, hit commercialism with the aim of achieving a united Ireland ad they were doing it using serious violence.

"And, at the Europa, they brought the news to the doorstep of the journalists. They needed publicity and they needed to spread their message - why they were doing it and what was wrong with the situation as they saw it. And here at the Europa you had a posse of people who both witnessed the violence and would then export the message."

Building upon the research undertaken for an Al Jazeera documentary series of the same name, War Hotels includes in-depth interviews with those who witnessed the tumultuous events that took place in and around the buildings, including Martin Bell, John Simpson, Jonathan Dimbleby, Peter Arnett and Robert Fisk.

War Hotels by Kenneth Morrison and Abdallah El Binni is available in paperback at £14.99.

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