McGurk’s Bar Bombing

Matters of the Day – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 22nd February 2011.

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Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker 10:30 am, 22nd February 2011

Mr Gerry Kelly has sought leave to make a statement on the report on the bombing of McGurk’s Bar, which fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. I will call Mr Kelly to speak for up to three minutes on the subject. I will then call representatives from each of the other political parties, as agreed with the Whips. Those Members will each have up to three minutes in which to speak on the subject. As Members know, there will be no opportunity for interventions, questions or a vote on the matter. I will not take any points of order until the item of business is concluded. If that is clear, we will proceed.

Photo of Gerry Kelly Gerry Kelly Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank you for the opportunity to speak on this very serious matter.

Yesterday, I attended the launch of the Police Ombudsman’s report on the bombing, which occurred some 40 years ago. It is important to say that, because the report yesterday was the first time in 40 years that the victims of the bombing and their families have been vindicated formally, even though they knew their own innocence. I pay tribute to the families for their dignity, commitment, dedication and unstinting belief in the innocence of their relatives.

Within 12 hours of the explosion, which killed 15 people and injured more than 16 others, the duty officers — three inspectors and a chief superintendent of the RUC — gave a report that compounded the grief of the families. It claimed that the bomb was an IRA bomb and that some of the victims may have been involved in planting it. That report was made despite it very quickly becoming known that there was a loyalist claim for that sectarian bombing, that there was forensic evidence and that there were three eyewitnesses who saw the bomb being planted. Also, the pathologist’s report said that none of the victims had any fragments of the bomb on them, which meant that the bomb was planted in the entrance hall and not in the bar. It is difficult for the families who suffered such grief that this lie went from the RUC report and from the British military, which assisted in it, to politicians who repeated it, including the then Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner, John Taylor and Reginald Maudling, who was the British Home Secretary at the time. It was then briefed to the media.

The present Chief Constable, Matt Baggott, had an opportunity to apologise for the wrong that was done to the families. Instead, he chose to contradict the ombudsman. Instead of showing that we are in a new era of policing and showing leadership in that, instead of apologising, he defended the indefensible. He went back, well before his time here, to something that he may have known nothing about and defended the actions of the RUC at the time, actions that the ombudsman had criticised. In his statement, he closed down the possibility of any further investigations, even though —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I remind the Member of the time.

Photo of Gerry Kelly Gerry Kelly Sinn Féin

Even though he knew what was ongoing. That is the essence of what I wanted to say. The families showed great dignity in their presentation yesterday but were slapped in the face by the present Chief Constable. That is an abominable and disgraceful way for him to behave.

Photo of Nelson McCausland Nelson McCausland DUP

The publication of the Police Ombudsman’s report into the McGurk’s bombing is an important development. Almost 40 years ago, on 4 December 1971, 15 people were murdered in north Belfast. I hope that the publication of the report will bring some closure for those who lost family members and friends in the bombing.

Several things stand out in the report, which brings clarity about how the events of that night unfolded and about responsibility for the bombing. It also confirms that there was no evidence at all of collusion. Through the years, there have been many allegations and accusations of collusion between the police and loyalists in that bombing. However, that matter is now settled.

The report is critical of the shortcomings of the police investigation, and that must be recognised and taken into account. It also notes the context of the time and looks at the police investigation in that context. Immediately after the bombing, a major gun battle took place in the surrounding area in which two policemen were shot, five civilians wounded and an Army major murdered. Account must also be taken of the series of killings in north Belfast before the bombing. A few days before, on 1 December, an innocent young woman was murdered by the IRA, and two policemen — including the first Roman Catholic policeman — were murdered by the IRA on 17 November. Those things strike me about the report.

The grief of thousands of people in Northern Ireland is the same as that of the McGurk’s families. Many of those families are still waiting for closure and for justice. There is much hurt from murders that have not been resolved and from terrorist crimes that have never been pinned to an organisation or individual. Many who carried out terrible acts still walk the streets freely.

There is a question about the second edition of the report; there was an earlier edition some seven months ago. I pose the question: what new evidence emerged that was presented to the PSNI during that period?

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I remind the Member of the time.

Photo of Nelson McCausland Nelson McCausland DUP

What new evidence was produced that influenced that change? Was that new evidence presented to the PSNI?

There is a certain irony about the statement that Gerry Kelly made this morning. The IRA has a lot of information about the murders that it carried out, and there are lots of families waiting for closure. I appeal for people to be honest, to come clean about the past and to help with that process of closure.

Photo of Fred Cobain Fred Cobain UUP

The Ulster Unionist Party welcomes the publication of the ombudsman’s report on the McGurk’s Bar bombing. Like others, I hope that it brings some closure to the families and to the victims of the bombing and to those who were injured and mentally scarred by that atrocity.

Like many, Mr Speaker, you will know that north Belfast was the scene of some horrendous killings during the past 30 years. More than 2,000 people were killed in north Belfast, which gives some idea of the difficulties for the communities in that area. However, I truly believe that no one benefits by creating new antipathies over issues that happened 30 or 40 years ago.

I do not want to get into historical issues; we need to look forward and not back. However, I found it particularly galling for the representative of an organisation that, for 30 years, practised the bombing of bars and the killing of innocent men, women and children from the Protestant community and of their co-religionists to come to the House and lecture it on an issue like this. When I see some of the destruction that was caused in north Belfast by the Provisional IRA, like many others I am galled when I listen to Gerry Kelly. He promoted the bombing of bars and the killing of men, women and children. He promoted that and belonged to an organisation —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. I ask the Member not to stray away from the subject matter —

Photo of Fred Cobain Fred Cobain UUP

I am not —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. The Member should not stray from the subject matter that is on the Floor.

Photo of Fred Cobain Fred Cobain UUP

Mr Speaker, I am not straying from the subject matter.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. The Member really should not challenge the authority of the Chair. I ask the Member to finish. The subject matter is the bombing of McGurk’s Bar.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. I understand. Members know that I am pretty liberal about allowing Members to go slightly outside the subject matter. I will allow the Member to continue.

Photo of Fred Cobain Fred Cobain UUP

Mr Speaker, I do not want to continue unless we can talk in the context that everyone wants to talk in.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I appreciate what the Member has said.

Photo of Fred Cobain Fred Cobain UUP

We feel sympathy for all the innocent victims of the Troubles. However, it is particularly galling when individuals who belong to organisations that actually practised violence come to the House and talk about the outrage at McGurk’s Bar. Outrages all over north Belfast were supported by individuals in the Provisional IRA, which used the armed struggle as cover for the killing of innocent individuals.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party 10:45 am, 22nd February 2011

I pay tribute to the families of those who were killed or injured in the bombing of McGurk’s Bar. They have worked unceasingly to clear the names of those who were the victims of the bombing in 1971. For the past 40 years, they have been rightly aggrieved over the way in which those victims were treated and libelled by the press, some politicians and the police and Army.

It is a moment of vindication for those families, and I pay tribute to them because they never lost their dignity and their thirst for justice. We should also remember that, shortly after the bombing of McGurk’s Bar, the late Mr Paddy McGurk asked publicly that those who carried out that atrocious act should be forgiven. He quoted scripture and said:

“forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

That was testament to his Christian spirit, and it also reflected the Christian spirit of those who campaigned for so long to clear the names of their loved ones and to get a proper investigation into this grievous atrocity.

I am deeply disappointed by the reaction of the Chief Constable. He has explicitly rejected the central finding of the Police Ombudsman’s investigation, which was that there was investigative bias by the RUC. He should have taken the example of the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, when the Bloody Sunday report was published and apologised immediately and without qualification to the relatives of the McGurk’s Bar victims. It is with sadness that I say those things, because I have immense respect for Matt Baggott. He has been badly advised on the issue, and he should reflect carefully on what has been said. Whoever penned that statement and put his name to it did not reflect what I think are the fine qualities that that man has and the leadership that he has given to the PSNI. Unfortunately, it is damaging not just to his standing but to the standing and the reputation of the PSNI.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I remind the Member of his time.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

In conclusion, I hope that the Chief Constable will today or as soon as possible meet the relatives of the McGurk’s Bar victims. I reiterate the SDLP’s support for the ombudsman and his office and the authoritative and definitive way in which he has dealt with the matter.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I, too, pay tribute to the determination of the families of the victims of the McGurk’s Bar bombing for their pursuit of the truth over the past 40 years. I also welcome the publication of the Police Ombudsman’s report. The bombing was one of the major atrocities of the Troubles, and the report provides further clarity on what happened and reinforces what has been understood for some time to be the context of the bombing and the source of responsibility.

Although there may not have been any collusion by the police, there were major failings in the assumptions that were made by the police and the quality and nature of the investigation into the bombing. That problem was compounded by political leaders and by the state thereafter. No doubt, that approach compounded the hurt and suffering of those who lost loved ones. Hopefully, the report will bring some closure. Obviously, a Police Ombudsman’s report deals only with one aspect of an investigation, which is how the police interacted, and not with the wider issues. That points to the need for a much wider process for how this society deals with the past. There are many such cases that need to be addressed. We, as political parties, and the two Governments must always be mindful of our duty to ensure that we define a process soon so that we can capture all the different demands for truth and justice.

With regard to the police, although I recognise that there were major failings in the early 1970s, it is worth reminding ourselves that considerable progress has been made with regard to the nature and quality of policing, particularly in the post-Patten period. Although the report on the police is damning, I would like to think that such an episode could not happen today and that, if there were any risk of it happening, we have safeguards in place to ensure that any shift in that direction would be addressed.

It is important that we recognise the families’ determination and the importance for them of closure. We must also recognise that people seek closure for many other cases in Northern Ireland.