Searching for truth in rubble of McGurk’s
di Ciaran MacAirt
More than four decades later, Ciaran MacAirt is still seeking justice for his grandmother and the 14 other victims of the pub massacre
I did not know my grandmother, Kathleen Irvine, as she had been murdered, along with 14 other innocent civilians, more than three years before I was born.
Kathleen, or Kitty, as her family and friends knew her, burned alive under the rubble of McGurk’s Bar on a cold night three weeks before Christmas 1971.
Extremists of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) had rolled to a stop in a car outside the bar. A shadowy, masked figure exited, set down a parcel packed with gelignite in the hallway of the pub and lit its fuse.
He then ran back to the car, which was driven off down Great George’s Street. A young lad was witness to all of this and testified that the bar had been attacked. His vivid statement was corroborated in detail by the confession of the one convicted UVF bomber many years later.
He even saved the life of a passer-by, who had turned the corner and this man testified that the boy warned him, “Mister, don’t go into that bar, there’s a bomb there.”
The man scarpered and was 40 yards away when the bomb ripped through the pub and brought its roof down upon everyone in the building. The family home was in the rooms upstairs, so the dead included children. The youngest victim was 13 years old and the eldest 73. My nanny, a doffers’ mistress, who had worked in the mills since she was young, was 53.
The McGurk’s Bar massacre was the greatest loss of civilian life in any murderous atrocity since the Blitz during the Second World War, but the innocent people in the rubble that night became the forgotten victims of a dirty war. The truth was buried with them.
What compounded the grief for our families was the lie fed into the public consciousness that the bomb had exploded accidentally among those in the bar that night. Therefore, the dead or injured were portrayed as guilty by association – if not complicit in this act of terrorism.
This pretext for the bombing, though, was quite simply created by the state authorities – the very people who are entrusted to uphold the basic human rights of citizens supposed to be their own.
The civilians in the bar that night were considered ‘apart’ from the state due to their religion and the state used their deaths at the hands of loyalists for its own political ends at a time of conflict.
I document the creation, growth and promulgation of this lie by the state within the pages of my book – The McGurk’s Bar Bombing: Collusion, Cover-Up and a Campaign for Truth.
Its genesis is in a Royal Ulster Constabulary file which, without substance or substantiation, stated: “Just before the explosion, a man entered the licensed premises and left down a suitcase, presumably to be picked up by a known member of the Provisional IRA. The bomb was intended for use on other premises. Before the ‘pick-up’ was made, the bomb exploded.”
This egregious lie was written hours after the attack and before all the dead had even been identified. What may be even more disgraceful, though, is that our families, after more than 40 years, are still fighting to clear the names of our loved ones.
Successive administrations, up to the present day, have not been able to hold their hands up and say that they were wrong.
Even in the face of a mountain of their own secret archives – evidence which we had to discover and place in the public domain – the authorities today are in denial.
The journey that we have experienced with the Police Ombudsman and now the Chief Constable has proved that this continues to be endemic at the highest levels.
So, in inky black and white, I allow the state’s own files to attest to the importance of information policy, control and dissemination in the battle for hearts and minds. This is a murky world of psychological operations, where mere words become weapons.
We have proved that this is a cover-up which is perpetuated by the uppermost reaches of the RUC, military and Government, including the Northern Ireland Prime Minister of the day, Brian Faulkner. His last, fateful roll of the dice – internment – would have failed if it was admitted that pro-state loyalists had bombed McGurk’s Bar for they too, would have to be interned – if only for international opinion.
As it was, the use of this special power was directed solely against one section of the community. Government files show that there was a specific ‘Arrest Policy for Protestants’: “Protestants are not, as the policy stands, arrested with a view to their being made subject to Interim Custody Orders (IOCs) and brought before the Commissioners.” We now know how doomed to failure internment was, anyway.
The McGurk’s Bar bombing was but one cover-up of many at this time. I examine in my book how the state and its security forces treated loyalist violence differently during the deadliest period of the conflict, when loyalists killed more than 120 civilians.
Nevertheless, during this time, from August 1971 to February 1973, not one pro-state paramilitary was interned. Again, the perceived faith of the victim and/or perpetrator is what discriminates.
My book casts a cold light on the cover-up of the McGurk’s Bar massacre and its context within our shared history.
I hope it will also stand as a lesson so that we may recognise the failings of the past and learn from our collective mistakes.
Only then shall we be better equipped as a society to ensure that it will not happen again.