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HISTORY Plenty of uncomfortable questions remain over the McGurk's bar bombing

Forty-six years on, the British state still owes the victim's families answers, writes RICHARD RUDKIN

FOR those looking for an example of why the “Troubles” were labelled the dirty war, they need look no further then the McGurk’s Bar Massacre, which claimed the lives of 15 people including two children and left many others injured.

On December 4 1971, without warning, an explosion ripped through the bar owned by Patrick and Philomena McGurk who lived on the upper floor of the premises along with their children.

The force of the explosion was so powerful the building collapsed. Those that were not killed by the blast or crushed by the falling masonry were seriously burned by the flames that engulfed the rubble fuelled by the shattered gas mains.

For the relatives, the stench of cover-up and collusion began almost before the dust from the explosion had settled. Without one shred of evidence, a statement in the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s (RUC) duty officer’s report said that a man had gone into the bar with a suitcase — presumably to be picked up by a known member of the Provisional IRA (PIRA) — for use on another target when the bomb exploded prematurely.

This report was given to the British Army, thereby setting in motion a propaganda campaign that over four decades later leaves the families still fighting for justice.

Ignoring eye-witness statements that gave a description of the “bombers,” the RUC instead complied with a request by Brian Faulkner, then Northern Ireland prime minister, to dig the dirt on those that were killed or injured.

Victims’ backgrounds were scrutinised and some had their homes searched in an attempt to find any evidence to link them to the PIRA.

When this failed, unofficial reports surfaced of a paramedic hearing a deathbed confession of a victim, where it was claimed “he had warned another man in the bar about the bomb.”

When scrutinised, no statements were traced and neither the victim nor the paramedic identified, nor indeed anything to prove either existed.

Media outlets on the briefing of the security forces ran with the lie that the PIRA were to blame. Politically, everyone in the information chain from the RUC right up to the defence minister were reading off the same page, leaving the families and the survivors as the only ones knowing the truth.

However, in a twist to events, in 1977 following a tip-off Ulster Volunteer Force member Robert Campbell was arrested and admitted that he was responsible for bombing McGurk’s bar but refused to name his associates.

Campbell stated that the bomb was initially intended for a known republican bar, but as the bar had security on the door, McGurk’s Bar was chosen instead.

However, Campbell’s confession raises many questions. Days before the bombing, three members of the PIRA escaped from Crumlin Road prison, situated not far from McGurk’s bar. On the day of the bombing the area was still saturated with troops with road blocks at almost every corner until shortly before the bomb exploded.

Is it likely that having aided an escape of three of its members, would the PIRA, or any other terrorist group, drive around a “troop-saturated” area with a bomb on board? From my experience, no. Yet Campbell and his associates did. What made them sure they wouldn’t be stopped? How could they be sure the road blocks would be lifted?

But it doesn’t stop there. How did the RUC “lose” crucial evidence including fingerprints taken from the car abandoned by the bombers? Why did the RUC, supported by the British army, conspire to blame the PIRA? It is the answers to these and other questions that contribute to the suggestion of collusion and cover-up.

In 2009 Ciaran MacAirt — grandson of Kitty Irvine, who was killed in the explosion, and author of The McGurk's Bar Bombing: Collusion, Cover-Up and a Campaign for Truth — uncovered a briefing report prepared for the British forces’ commander in Northern Ireland Sir Harry Tuzo, which stated that the bomb disposal officer at the scene believed in his expert opinion that the bomb was placed at the entrance and not inside the pub.

The importance of this can’t be underestimated. It proved that before the RUC had made out the report blaming the PIRA for a premature explosion, the British army commanders already knew that the bomb exploded “outside” and not inside the bar.

They also knew that the victims were all innocent people, probably targeted by a Unionist terror group. Yet still they circulated the lie that it was the PIRA through the media and all government agencies.

Moreover, on December 23 1971 the commanding officer of the troops responsible for that area had his soldiers post a statement to the people near McGurk’s which stated that “he was looking forward to a period in which the residents will not lose their friends in a repetition of the Provos accident in McGurks Bar.”

Since 2009, with the help of other agencies including the human rights advocacy groups Rights Watch and the Pat Finucane Centre, the families have uncovered an archive of documents suggesting the RUC was involved in a propaganda campaign. The families now want the British government to release all its files on the McGurk’s bombing.

You may read this and ask: “What about the murder of British soldiers?” That's a good question. But what contributed towards the hatred of the soldiers? Lies, discrimination and a lack of justice. That’s why I want the truth too.


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