The insistence of absence - the legacy of the McGurk’s bar bombing

The insistence of absence – the legacy of the McGurk’s bar bombing

The issue of how best to deal with the legacy of the past – if at all – continues to be a contested issue in the north of Ireland. The past remains present as those given the responsibility to move the process forward seem to evade their responsibilities to victims and survivors.

 Suggested Reading Collaborative Conflict Transformation GCCT

By Kate McCabe

“As a child in my grandfather’s home…mere mention of McGurk’s and a pall would descend.  It was as if an unwanted guest had barged into the room.  Now that I am older, though, I wonder whether that dull presence ever left.”

– Ciarán MacAirt, “The McGurk’s Bar Bombing: Collusion, Cover-Up and a Campaign for Truth”

On a cold, quiet night in December 1971, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) detonated a bomb outside the door of the family owned and operated McGurk’s Bar in downtown Belfast.  The impact of the loyalist bomb tore through the roof, causing the walls to cave in and the gas mains to burst into flame, trapping the predominantly Catholic patrons inside.  Residents from neighboring communities raced from their homes and poured into the streets surrounding the bar, many frantically digging through the rubble with their bare hands in an attempt to get to those that were still alive.  In all, fifteen people were killed that night, with ages ranging from 13 to 73 years old. Seventeen more were injured in the blast.

In the aftermath of the bombing, it was left to the families who lost loved ones to determine whether their relatives were amongst those killed.  The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) made no effort to notify them; many were informed of their loss while watching the news on television.  The remains of Philip Garry, 73, were so badly burned that members of his family were only able to confirm his death when they used a set of keys found in the pocket of an unidentified man to unlock their own front door.  Said one grieving relative, Tommy McCready, on going to the hospital to identify James Smyth, 58, “If people had to see what I had to see in that room, there would not have been another bullet fired or bomb exploded.”

The unimaginable grief of the families would soon be compounded by the official line put forth by the British security forces:  that the bomb that exploded in McGurk’s that night was an Irish Republican Army (IRA) “own goal.” The police’s immediate response to the tragedy was to blame the victims (all of whom were Catholic), labelling some as republican paramilitaries carrying a bomb that had exploded prematurely.  State authorities used this lie and subsequent campaign of disinformation in the immediate aftermath of the bombing to place the blame on the shoulders of those who died or were injured, implying that they were responsible at worst and guilty by association at best.

In the wake of the explosion, the McGurk’s Bar Massacre Campaign was born, as the families of the victims began to piece together their lives and embarked on a journey to uncover the truth about what happened and why.  For over forty years now, the families have pursued every avenue available to them to clear the names of their loved ones and to have the truth about what happened officially acknowledged.  Pat Irvine, daughter of Kathleen “Kitty” Irvine, who was killed in the blast, has said that she doesn’t feel like she truly started grieving for the loss of her mother until she started doing research for the campaign.  Though one member of the UVF, Robert James Campbell, was prosecuted in 1978 for his role in the bombing, in 2010 the McGurks families discovered that he was named alongside four others by the RUC as perpetrators.  The other four were neither arrested nor questioned about their involvement.

In February 2011, the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (OPONI) released a report revealing investigative bias on behalf of the RUC at the time of the bombing, claiming that the police were so predisposed to the idea of the IRA “own goal” theory that they did not undertake a thorough investigation.  In response, the current Chief Constable, Matt Baggott, publicly and contradicted the Ombudsman’s belief that there was any investigative bias.  Ciarán MacAirt was sent as a representative of the McGurk’s families to testify in front of the US Helsinki Commission’s hearing entitled “Northern Ireland: Why Justice in Individual Cases Matters”, chaired by Congressman Chris Smith in March of 2011.  “Equivocating on the issue of truth and justice for past crimes will only embolden those elements responsible for them from the resulting impunity,” Congressman Smith said at the conclusion of the hearing. “The time has come to focus truth’s light on the murky relationships and collusion that existed between the security forces and paramilitary organizations in Northern Ireland and hold those responsible to account.”

The Historical Enquiries Team (HET), a division of the police service tasked with investigating unsolved murders during the Troubles, began its investigation of the McGurk’s Bar Bombing in 2006.  Though the HET completed its most recent report in 2012, the Chief Constable blocked its release without explanation – a move one relative claimed was re-traumatizing for the families.  On September 12th of this year, a High Court judge in Belfast granted Bridget Irvine, another of Kathleen’s daughters, leave to seek a judicial review of the Chief Constable’s decision.  Speaking on behalf of the McGurk’s families, Frank O’Donoghue QC told the court that the Chief Constable is under public duty to release the HET’s findings without delay, and called his failure to do so “irrational, unlawful and in breach of their human rights” according to local papers.

Part two

Ciarán MacAirt is a generation removed from the bombing that claimed the life of his grandmother, Kathleen, and injured his grandfather, John Irvine.  Though the bombing took place over three years before he was born, the impact of his family’s tremendous loss – and in particular, his relationship with his grandfather – would eventually inspire MacAirt to assume a leadership role in the McGurk’s Bar Massacre Campaign.

MacAirt’s grandfather John, who survived the blast that killed his wife, had fought in WWII as a Colour Sergeant in the Royal Irish Fusiliers, an Irish infantry regiment of the British Army.  Though MacAirt remembers John as a fiercely quiet and intelligent man, he says he was also wracked with the sort of guilt that only survivors bear.

“Loss and grief can be raw and gravely problematic.  For some it is shapeless, uncompromising and very angry.  When awake, Granda’s grief was wordless and introspective.  When he slept, though, he had horrific night terrors,” MacAirt recalls.  Members of the Irvine family would regularly find John trying to push rubble away as he slept, and he would often awaken clawing at his mouth as if to remove the dust and silt from that night.

As a child, MacAirt was always conscious of the absence of a grandmother on his mother’s side, he says about growing up in the shadow of her death. “…for me Kathleen Irvine was omnipresent.  We learned young that McGurk’s Bar was a subject that was rarely broached.  For me as a child, my grandmother’s absence was as insistent as words that should be said…but are not.”

John Irvine would live another 22 years after the bomb that claimed the love of his life.  As he grew older, MacAirt felt more and more of a duty to his grandparents to speak for them.  He points to the 30th anniversary of the atrocity, in 2001, as a personal turning point.  “I felt ashamed that I had done so little especially since I had promised Granda when I was a teenager that the first book I would write would be about the bombing of McGurk’s Bar.  I was 26 years old at that state and I reconsidered that remembrance alone was not enough,” MacAirt says.

MacAirt’s book, “The McGurk’s Bar Boming: Collusion, Cover-Up and a Campaign for Truth” was published last year.  While the book chronicles the story of the tragic 1971 bombing, it is as much about the collusion and subsequent cover-up as it is about love and loss, and the quiet strength and dignity with which the families continue to struggle to have “an innocence put back” on the names of their loved ones.

“What had always resonated with me was not so much the heavy loss that [Granda] bore but the depth of love he had to lose for such grief to be insurmountable,” writes MacAirt.  “This subtlety is important for me as it reveals what he truly shared with every other person across these two islands and beyond who had their lives wrecked by conflict.  Behind the horror, behind the terror, is a human love story and this is what I remember when I think of John and Kathleen Irvine.”

Part three

The book also details MacAirt’s theory behind the attack – namely that McGurk’s Bar was targeted because its patrons were Catholic, and that the families were then branded criminals by the police, British Army and the Intelligence Services for that very same reason.  MacAirt argues that it would not have been feasible for the State to allow a loyalist paramilitary group to accept the blame for the bombing at that time; the British government’s internment policy had begun in August of that year and had to date been used exclusively against Catholic/nationalist communities.

Four months prior to the attack, the British Army put into place “Operation Demetrius,” a program of mass arrest and internment without trial of Catholics.  Hundreds of people suspected of being involved in republican paramilitary groups were taken from their homes and jailed; no suspected loyalist paramilitaries were targeted in the sweeps.  Had the security forces gone after the real perpetrators of the bombing, MacAirt believes, Protestants would then also have to be interned.  “The international mask of its use as a tool of repressing just one community would have slipped,” MacAirt states.

MacAirt’s theory is supported in part by Colin Wallace, a former Senior Information Officer for the British Army’s psychological operations unit in the 1970s, who wrote the foreword to the book.  Wallace was stationed at Army Headquarters in the North of Ireland and was on duty the night of December 4, 1971.  He claims that the original report he received immediately following the bombing was that the bomb had been placed outside of the pub and that all the evidence pointed to a loyalist attack.  The next morning, however, the official line had been changed to the IRA “own goal” theory, stating that the bomb had allegedly exploded inside the pub in the hands of those who had intended to use it elsewhere.  Wallace believes that the change in the story – what MacAirt refers as collusion after the fact – was part of the British government’s disinformation strategy, meant to counter recent IRA propaganda successes.

Although MacAirt has never had any faith in the independence or effectiveness of the HET as an organization for truth recovery, the future direction and focus of the McGurk’s Bar Massacre campaign will be determined by the contents of the HET report once the families are able to gain access to it.  Outside of the pending legal action, the families continue their campaign through the book, their website and a new film entitled “The McGurk’s Bar Bombing: Loss of Innocence” which is now available on YouTube.

Part four

The issue of how best to deal with the legacy of the past – if at all – continues to be a contested issue in the north of Ireland.  For his part, MacAirt shares the beliefs of victims/survivors groups like Relatives for Justice, the Pat Finucane Centre, Justice for the Forgotten, an Fhírinne, and the Ardoyne Commemoration Project – that an independent, international process that allows for all participants in the conflict to come clean would greatly benefit campaigning families specifically and society in general – regardless of how costly or shameful their uncomfortable truths might be.  In 2008, this coalition of groups came together to call for a process tailor-made for Ireland’s circumstances, due in large part to the fact that available mechanisms did not provide any real prospect of truth recovery for affected families.  “We believe that an independent, international truth commission provides the best opportunity for truth recovery for the greatest number of those affected by the conflict. We believe this will contribute to individual and societal healing and recovery, dealing with the legacy of the past in a positive way and building a better future for everyone,” the coalition stated.  Though a proposal for a truth commission of sorts was recommended by the British-appointed Consultative Group on the Past in 2009 only to be shelved soon thereafter, recent developments appear to be re-opening the idea as a more viable option.

In July, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) – a crown-appointed watchdog group akin to the US’ Internal Affairs – found that the HET investigated cases involving state violence with “less rigour” than others, and called their approach to investigations inconsistent.  The announcement prompted Belfast-based victims group Relatives for Justice to declare the HET “beyond reform” and has called for it to be disbanded to create space for a legitimate investigative process. US diplomat Richard Haass, a former Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, arrived in Belfast this week to chair multi-party talks on some of the unresolved issues of the peace process, including dealing with the past.

On the same day that the McGurk’s families won their court challenge for a judicial review, Amnesty International published a bold report entitled “Northern Ireland: Time to Deal with the Past.” The report criticizes the existing mechanisms for truth recovery currently available to families, such as the HET and the OPONI, and calls the lack of political will to deal with the legacy of the past the largest factor preventing the creation of a viable, comprehensive process to move forward.  Amnesty states, “Without the truth, however, Northern Ireland’s past will continue to cast a long, damaging shadow over its present and its future. The longer that truth is kept hidden, and as a result justice and reparation are denied, the greater the potential for damage. The longer each bereaved family or injured individual is left to stitch together facts and fragments of information from disparate, piecemeal processes, the greater their pain.”

It remains to be seen whether or not the new Amnesty report and the upcoming Haass talks, combined with existing local campaigning families and human rights groups, will have the power to prompt more focused and sustained political engagement on the topic of an independent, international truth recovery process.  Yet MacAirt’s own experience of growing up in the shadow of his grandmother’s absence, like so many others who lost loved ones during the Troubles, exemplifies the naiveté of any argument about drawing a line under the past.  The idea that there is a generation that has not been affected ignores the experience of victims and survivors who continue to shoulder the burden of loss.

Robert McClenaghan, grandson of Philip Garry, remarked on his continued involvement in the McGurk’s Bar campaign, “You would like it to go away and to be able to do something else with your life…but you just feel compelled.  The dead cannot speak, and we have to try to speak for them and be their voice.  And to try to act on their behalf and say that these people were innocent.  And that these people deserve justice.”

Could an international, independent truth inquiry create the conditions necessary for true healing and reconciliation to finally begin?  Are the interests of those most intimately affected by the violence of the Troubles being served as these issues are discussed? For them, their families and their communities, the past remains present as those given the responsibility to move the process forward seem to evade their responsibilities to victims and survivors.

Kate McCabe is a former National President of the Irish American Unity Conference and a founder of Relatives for Justice USA.  She will attend the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma this year.  Kate can be contacted at

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