12 June 2008 Edition
The Historical Enquiries Team report into the McGurk's bar bombing
Lies, damn lies and British Military Intelligence
By Laura Friel
PHILIP GARRY was a 73-year-old grandfather when he died in the bombing of McGurk’s bar in December 1971. He had left his home in the Unity Flats area of Belfast for a quiet drink. A pint of Guinness was his favourite tipple. He died a short time later, one of 15 people killed in the explosion with a further 16 seriously injured. Other survivors were pulled from the rubble of the collapsed building.
The McGurk’s bombing was the single biggest atrocity in the North until the Omagh bombing of 1998 yet, instead of prompting rigorous investigation, it became the focus of spurious claims emanating from British Military Intelligence and promoted by the highest echelons of the British political establishment, including the British Cabinet.
In the intervening years, the British campaign of disinformation, which claimed ‘forensic evidence’ identified the IRA as responsible for the explosion and subsequent loss of life, has been completely exposed as propaganda but at the time it placed enormous pressure on the families of the dead and the victims that survived.
Just as those who died at the hands of British paratroopers a month later in Derry’s Bloody Sunday, the dead and injured in McGurk’s bar were also branded as ‘terrorists’ and as such regarded as culpable in their own deaths. The British lie which claimed that the deaths and injuries were the result of an ‘IRA own goal’ not only distracted attention away from the loyalists who carried out the bombing but also placed suspicion upon those who died.
Philip Garry was the oldest to die that day. Among the youngest were the bar owner’s 14-year-old daughter, Maria McGurk, and schoolboy James Cromie, aged 13. Until their own deaths, the widow of Philip Garry and his grand-daughter, Mary, fought long and hard to clear Philip’s name and the names of other victims by establishing the truth about the way they died. Today that endeavour is being continued by Philip’s grandson, Robert McClenaghan.
“After her husband’s death, my grandmother spent the rest of her life quietly campaigning to establish the truth about the McGurk’s bombing. My sister, Mary, was also determined to expose the lies. After they passed away it seemed only right to take up the campaign myself.”
In 1991, the family took their case to the west Belfast-based campaign and support group, Relatives for Justice, but they did not seek assistance from the recently-established PSNI Historical Enquires Team (HET).
“The HET is about the police investigating the police,” says Robert. In my opinion, that’s a non-starter. Some of the most senior members of HET are former members of the original Stevens Inquiry team, who only managed to produce 20 pages out of a 20,000-page report.
“I have no confidence in the HET but some of the other families have asked the HET to look into their case. Expectations were raised really beyond what the HET had been tasked to deliver, which is a review of current information, not a reinvestigation.”
A report into the McGurk’s bombing was published by the HET last week. It is, as Robert McClenaghan suspected, a review of existing material rather than a new investigation.
The report’s most telling contributions are the omissions in the original investigation it exposes and the mechanisms of black propaganda involved in covering up the truth it reveals.
Even before the last body and survivor were pulled from the rubble of McGurk’s bar, reports of the bombing were engulfed by disinformation and subterfuge emanating from British Military Intelligence and the RUC.
Forensic evidence supported eyewitness accounts that described a bombing team travelling in a car and a bomb being placed within the front entrance of the bar. A witness described a man planting the bomb which began to spark before running back to the car and being driven away. The witness also described a Union Jack flag sticker in the rear window of the vehicle.
A Government forensic scientist examined the scene the day after the bombing. His examination had been delayed because of the rescue operation in the aftermath of the building collapsing which continued well into the night. His report was delayed for almost two months.
In his report, the scientist concluded the explosion “had occurred at or about the entrance door from the porch leading off Great Georges Street”. But this information is at odds with British Military Intelligence’s claim that the bombing was a result of an ‘IRA own goal’, a story they had been circulating from the outset, regardless of the fact that the forensic report was still pending. In the absence of an official report, the British Army supplied the media with their own ‘expert’ opinion which corroborated their version of events. The so-called ‘expert’ was later deemed unqualified to make a judgement.
The British military argued that the bombing was the work of the IRA on the grounds that a loyalist bombing team could not penetrate the building to plant a device. If the bomb exploded inside the building, the British military argued, it was the work of the IRA. The definition of “inside” the building became paramount.
A hallway before an inner door was often referred to as a ‘porch’ or ‘porchway’ but, technically, a porch is an addition to the original building, whereas the site referred to was a hallway within the parameters of the building. It was therefore inside and not outside.
The HET report says:
“Much of the ill-informed speculation that surrounds this incident may have been based on the incorrect assumption that ‘inside the building’ equated to ‘inside the main public bar area’ and therefore, in the agreed absence of strangers, the bomb must have been brought in by one of the locals present.”
Of course, the HET is playing with language here too. The lie was not the result of amorphous “ill-informed speculation” but the British Army’s briefing to the British Government which was subsequently made public by the Stormont Home Affairs Minister, John Taylor, at the urgent request of the British Army.
In a secret document to the Government, the British Army described the bomb as inside the bar and concludes “this raises a very strong presumption that it was caused by the accidental detonation of a bomb being carried by one of the customers”.
The British Army reported:
“The Minister of State for Defence is being invited to consider whether to make this point public. In the view of Headquarters Northern Ireland, it is important to put this point on record in order to discourage continuing speculations about who was responsible for the explosion.”
Clearly, the notion of an ‘IRA own goal’ was not the result of “speculation” but rather was deliberately peddled by the British Army to “discourage continuing speculation” which correctly identified the bombing as the work of the UVF.
Propaganda was hot on the heels of subterfuge. Within hours of the bombing, The Sunday Times was reporting British Army Intelligence as “believing that Ulster’s worst outrage was caused by an IRA plan that went wrong”. The article cites British Army explosive experts that “think that the bomb was inside the building, probably on the ground floor”.
The article appeared on 5 December and on the following day the British Ministry of Defence noted in a secret report to the British Government:
“There appears to be a welcome improvement in the attitude of the Sunday Times and its treatment of Northern Ireland, in particular a more realistic view of the true character of the IRA.”
On 7 December, the News Letter quoted Stormont Home Affairs Minister John Taylor as saying that forensic experts supported the theory that the bomb was inside the building. Taylor went on to describe the bombing as “a despicable crime” and blamed the IRA.
The HET report accepts that there was a “prevailing military mindset” which led to a “slew of inaccurate reporting and speculation” fuelled by the British Army.
The HET concedes that this “resulted in unfairness to the families and considerable distress”.
It seems clear that British Military Intelligence used the McGurk’s bombing to engage in anti-republican propaganda designed to undermine local support and reign in the media. But was the campaign of black propaganda which followed the McGurk’s bombing opportunistic or were there more sinister elements at work?
In 2007, two articles appeared in the media, both quoting a former UVF member using the pseudonym ‘John Black’. In each of the articles, ‘Black’ claims the bombing at McGurk’s bar was organised by his handlers in the British Army’s notorious Military Reconnaissance Force.
The MRF was a covert unit of the British Military Intelligence and a forerunner of the Force Research Unit. The MRF is believed to have been set up in the summer of 1971, using operational techniques based on British counter-insurgency expert Brigadier Frank Kitson’s strategy of recruiting ‘counter gangs’ to combat resistance movements.
Exposure of the MRF as a covert assassination squad eventually led to its ‘disbandment’ and re-emergence as the Force Research Unit. The FRU reorganised, rearmed and redirected loyalist death squads and remains a key element in the collusion controversy.
A few months after the McGurk’s bombing, an undercover unit of the MRF attacked a group of unarmed Catholic civilians operating a checkpoint in west Belfast: 44-year-old Patrick McVeigh was killed and four others were injured. The unit used a Thompson submachine-gun in the attack, a weapon usually associated with the IRA at the time.
A month later, the MRF mounted a similar attack against Catholic civilians, injuring four more people. The covert unit was exposed by the IRA in October 1972. No one has ever been charged with the murder of Patrick McVeigh.
In reference to the McGurk’s bombing, ‘John Black’ describes the motivation of the covert British Army unit as being “to discredit republican terrorists amongst the Catholic community by making the attack look like an IRA bomb”.
Clearly the MRF not only acted as a covert assassination squad but was also quite prepared to target Catholic civilians in its determination to discredit the IRA.
A report into collusion in relation to the McGurk’s bombing has been compiled by British Irish Rights Watch and is currently part of an investigation being carried out by the Police Ombudsman. The Ombudsman’s report is scheduled to be released within the next two weeks.
Significantly, the Ombudsman is restricted into considering any role of the RUC in the collusion allegation and has no jurisdiction in investigation the role of the British Army and undercover units like the MRF and FRU.
Apart from noting the allegations made by ‘Black’, the HET has little to offer in relation to collusion. Apart from tentative attempts to contact ‘Black’ through his publisher, the HET made no attempt to investigate possible collusion in relation to the bombing of McGurk’s.
Indeed, since collusion has never been investigated and HET is confined to evaluating existing material, finding no evidence of collusion only highlights an omission in the original investigation – it does not mean, as the HET implies, that there was no collusion.
Omission is also a key aspect of the RUC’s role in the aftermath of the bombing and this is the most likely consideration of the forthcoming Ombudsman’s report. According to the HET, in March 1976, the RUC had intelligence to link five named men with the McGurk’s bombing. All five were known to have links to the UVF. The RUC took no action.
Sixteen months later, in July 1977, RUC Special Branch interviewed a loyalist suspect, Robert Campbell, in relation to the murder of John Morrow, a Protestant workman killed in the mistaken belief he was a Catholic. During the interview, Campbell confessed to being one of a three-man gang who planted the bomb at McGurk’s bar.
Significantly, Campbell’s was one of the five names already in the hands of the RUC. Another two men named were known as active members of the UVF. Although Campbell refused to name his accomplices, the confession of his own role offered a significant verification of the information regarding the five men named to the RUC. Despite this, the RUC made no subsequent attempt to arrest any of the four other named suspects.
Campbell claimed that the bombers had been sent to target another bar “on the corner of the street near Gallagher’s” but crowds at the doorway deterred the gang, who took the decision to bomb McGurk’s bar instead. It’s worth remembering this point.
Any attempt to exonerate the British military of collusion on the grounds that McGurk’s was not the intended target would be totally disingenuous. Any investigation of collusion in relation to McGurk’s should expose Britain’s role, regardless of the intended target.
Incredibly, 37 years after the bombing, the RUC officers handling the original McGurk’s bombing case are still refusing to co-operate with any new investigation, even one carried out by the police themselves. According to the HET report, the most senior surviving RUC officer involved with the original investigation into the McGurk’s bombing, Detective Inspector Casey, has refused to engage with HET officers.
The conclusions of the HET are predicable. It exonerates the original RUC investigation as “substantial” and “cannot make definite assessments of the management of intelligence” because of “lack of detailed record keeping”. The HET report finds “no evidence” of collusion and ends with a lie:
“The families of the victims have been poorly served by all concerned, with a lack of communication and information from the authorities exacerbated by ill-informed speculation and comment in the public arena.”
The families and victims have been poorly served not because of a “lack of communication” on the part of the authorities but because of a British Military Intelligence-led campaign of disinformation which attempted to discredit both those who died and their families in a deliberate bid to vilify the IRA.
Public speculation correctly identified the bombers as loyalist and only became “ill-informed” after a deliberate and sustained intervention of lies by the British military. The families need more than an apology; they need the truth.