My name is Ciarán MacAirt.
I am a grandson of John and Kathleen Irvine. Kitty, as her friends and family called her, was one of fifteen innocent civilians, women, men and children, who were slain in the McGurk’s Bar Massacre, 4th December 1971. Over a dozen injured were lucky to escape with their lives. It was the single greatest loss of civilian life in Ireland since the Nazi Blitz of World War 2 but we have had to fight for our story to be heard.
So our families are very grateful to the organizers for inviting us here today to share our story with you.
The bomb attack carried out by Loyalist extremists of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) but blamed by the authorities on a Republican bomb-in-transit. Therefore, the innocent victims were despoiled of life and their good name. Successive administrations have withheld the full truth from us for two generations. Our families have had to campaign relentlessly, constitutionally and with great dignity for nearly four decades to clear the names of our loved ones. It is a fight that continues to this very day.
My grandparents were enjoying a quiet drink with old friends, Edward and Sarah Keenan in a family-run public house called McGurk’s Bar in North Belfast. McGurk’s Bar was a old-style bar, passed from father to son, which was frequented by those members of the north Belfast community who were more interested in a punt or a pint rather than the sectarian politics of the day. As the family home was in the rooms upstairs, Mr. And Mrs. McGurk had created an environment that was not only fitting for a well-run pub, but also one that was appropriate for the raising of their children.
Looking across the bar and into the main lounge Kitty recognised every single one of the customers who sat around talking or reading a paper. Thomas Kane, Robert Spotswood and James Smyth had taken up their usual seats along the bar. Further along, Thomas McLaughlin, his uncle and two of their friends were too busy chatting and laughing. Behind them, Philip Garry, who even at 73 still kept himself busy as a school-crossing patrolman, was having a quiet pint. Near to him Francis Bradley and David Milligan relaxed after labouring week-long in the docks. In the corner she could not see, Edward Kane was entertaining his friend, Roderick McCorley, and 80 year-old Mr. Griffin with lively chat over a quick drink before heading home to his young family.
That night, as the regular customers chatted and laughed amongst themselves, upstairs the McGurk boys and a young 13 year old friend, James Cromie, were having a raucous game of table football. Mr. McGurk’s brother-in-law, John Colton, was getting ready to help out in the bar below when his sister, Philomena McGurk arrived home with the McGurk’s only daughter, 14 year old Maria. They were returning home from confession in nearby St Patrick’s Church.
A bomb ripped through this scene, bringing walls and roof down upon everyone. Those who were not crushed or slowly asphyxiated by masonry were horrifically burned when shattered gas mains burst into flames beneath the rubble. The lifeless bodies of fifteen innocent men, women and children were dragged from the ruins. The same again and then some escaped with their lives.
Such was the carnage of the McGurk’s Bar Massacre.
A young boy saw the bomb being planted in the outside hallway and the fuse lit by a man who then got into a car with two other men in it before escaping into the night. This lad was able to give police a vivid description of the car and the masked stranger. He warned a passerby that there was a bomb and the man escaped with seconds to spare. He testifies to the boy having saved his life. Nevertheless, these witness statements and those of the survivors; an admission by the Loyalists themselves and a whole gamut of evidence was ignored by the RUC. Instead, without substance or substantiation, they placed on file in a Duty Officers report that this was a bomb-in-transit: our loved ones were guilty by association if not complicit in acts of terrorism. They were to blame.
An archive that the families discovered in 2009 proved though that two British Army Technical Officers, experts in explosion patterning and disposal who “happened” on to the scene, recorded that the bomb had been placed “outside” the bar. This is recorded in a Director of Operations Brief so the General Officer Commanding British Forces in Northern Ireland knew this as fact.
Nevertheless, swiftly, the disinformation created by the RUC was then drip-fed into the intelligence stream. It even became the basis for government briefings and speeches. It was leaked to the press and was fed into the public consciousness. It became a lie that allowed the true culprits go free until one admitted of his own volition to the crimes after many years as a paramilitary killer. Still the investigation went no further even though intelligence naming the other culprits was in their possession.
I have placed all of these archives in the research section of our campaign website. The reason that I have been able to do this is that we, the families, the Pat Finucane Centre and the British Irish Rights Watch and not the authorities, found them. Not investigating officers of the RUC, not investigating officers of the Ombudsman or HET, not investigating officers of the reformed Police Service of Northern Ireland. WE found them.
This includes the minutes of a Joint Security Committee meeting less than two weeks later when a Chief Constable, and his head of Special Branch told the Northern Ireland Prime Minister and the General Officer Commanding the British Army in the north that two of the victims were known IRA terrorists – at least one of them a bomber – damning evidence of cover-up that went to the heart of the Government and the highest reaches of the RUC and British military. Other targeted information has been redacted, lost or barred from us under section 24 – National Security.
Against this back-drop, could we ever expect a fair investigation?
A recently published report by the Police Ombudsman censures the RUC investigators for “investigative bias”. The Police Ombudsman though chose not to use a definition of collusion that had been laid by the Stevens Inquiries and Judge Cory. It was a definition that he chose to use for the Claudy report but then not for us. He instead, after an aborted first report, chose the diluted “investigative bias”. The Committee for the Administration of Justice, the independent and internationally renowned Human Rights watchdog, has since censured the Police Ombudsman for this.
Nevertheless, the present Chief Constable of the reformed Police Service of Northern Ireland denies even this diluted expression of bias. He has disputed the central finding of the statutory body set up to investigate police complaints. Yet again, the massacre of our loved ones was politicized by a Chief Constable at a time when our communities should have faith in a reformed police force’s ability to recognize and learn from the failings of the past.
We are still waiting for him to re-engage with us 5 months later and tell us what exactly he had disagreed with when he circulated three garbled press releases within 18 hours. 5 further months he has left aged campaigners waiting even though they have battled for nearly four decades.
Nevertheless let us not forget he has little right to question the statutory body that we have as a mechanism for holding the police accountable. It is a mechanism that we have there because formerly it was proved time and time again that members of our community could not trust the police.
So this is why after nearly 40 years we are still seeking the truth. This is not simply about closure for fellow human beings. This is about historical and moral rectitude. History informs the present and from it we learn our mores as a society. As a society we WILL have to attend to these uncomfortable truths. Otherwise, history has proven that cover-up, collusion and a very particular brand of State-sponsored terror will continue unabated… as it today in Afghanistan.
Ciarán MacAirt, grandson of John and Kitty Irvine
Le Grá Go Deo