#McGurks Bar: a brief prehistory of disinformation

Forty-five years on from the McGurks Bar bombing there is much that is yet to be understood not only about the bombing itself, but also the context in which it happened. Mindful that the human legacies of such a tragedy may never be mitigated by any amount of revelations, a full and accurate account of events is required if broader societal and political aspirations towards achieving genuine conflict transformation are to be realised.

McGurks Bar (officially known as the Tramore Bar).

McGurks Bar (officially known as the Tramore Bar).

The last point is significant, though. Much of what we know about McGurks Bar have been painstakingly pieced together by Ciaran MacAirt, in the face of considerable and sustained obstruction on the part of the British government and its security forces.  Key to understanding what actually happened on 4th December 1971 is having a meaningful insight into the  roles played by the northern government (and its armed forces), it’s interactions with those that planned and planted the bomb, and also those of the British army. To date, it seems inconsistent to argue that there is any evidence in the actions of the British government to suggest that it is actually seeking real conflict transformation in Ireland.

A number of key themes emerge in reviews of the bombing, in particular the actions of the RUC and the British Army, including Frank Kitson who has become a lightning rod for attention due to his documented lead in counterinsurgency and disinformation strategies. Kitson’s previous career in Kenya and Malaya identify him and his staff as potential sources for the campaign of disinformation that followed in the aftermath of the bombing. However, there is also an intersection here with a deep native capacity for disinformation and black propaganda amongst the RUC and northern government. A brief exploration of incidents predating the 1970s shows that the RUC were already adept at the strategies applied at McGurks Bar.

Many parallels can be seen as far back as the 1920s. On 13th February 1922, a bomb had been thrown into children playing in Weaver Street, killing four children, two adults and wounding many others. The actions of Special Constables before, during and after the attack (and their role in it) were never to be disclosed or explored by the northern government. At the time, the RUC issued erroneous statements implying they had come under attack. Subsequent comments by James Craig and reporting by the press even gave the impression that the IRA may have thrown the bomb after shots were fired at an armoured car. This deliberately blurred culpability. In fact there was no armoured car present and the bomb had been thrown by men in the company of Special Constables. Not only that, two Special Constables had forced the children into a crowd so the bomb, thrown at a distance of thirty yards, would inflict maximum damage. To compound matters, the RUC had refused to take statements from witnesses at the scene or collect forensic evidence such as bullet casings and bomb fragments. All of these were subsequently produced by residents at the inquests before the City Coroner.

There are many echoes in the Weaver Street bombing in attacks that took place decades later: the acquiescence (if not direct participation) of security forces, the failure to investigate and the deployment of disinformation. Notably, much of this was exposed and reported on during the inquests, which may have influenced official attitudes towards such process at a later date.

The need to control legal proceedings is shown by another example, from 1935. On 12th July, during violence in Lancaster Street, John McKay, a cattle drover who lived in Great Georges Street, was shot dead. The inquest was perfunctory, but his wife lodged a compensation claim with the Belfast Recorder. During the hearing before the Recorder, RUC headquarters sent instructions that the two reports by RUC Constables into McKay’s death were not to be disclosed to the court. The Recorder inspected the reports and then declared them covered by privilege despite the fact that such a right was only available to a cabinet minister.

Even today we know very little about the unionists who carried out the bombing in Weaver Street in 1922 or the likes of those who shot John McKay in 1935. Who was responsible, how they were organised and who ultimately directed their violence is not clearly understood. Nor are these minor details of historical dilettantism. There was no intention on the part of the northern government to work towards any meaningful societal reconciliation after 1922. The net effect was that violence against Catholics (in the sense that that was who was understood to be the target) was never deconstructed away from having a sort of monolithic ‘unionism’ as it’s source. Despite all the subsequent protests to the contrary, a failure to divest an understanding of who the real protagonists were, the motivations and modus operandi amounted to a continued co-option of the moral responsibility for all those actions onto the ‘unionist’ body as a whole. An unraveling of this, faced with scrutiny by the print and broadcast media, can be seen in the events of 1966.

In May that year the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) publicly threatened that “…known IRA men will be executed mercilessly and without hesitation.” On the 27th of that month, UVF members shot John Scullion in Oranmore Street. The RUC immediately reported that Scullion had been stabbed and that they believed he knew the name of his attackers. The emotional framing around Scullion is classic black propaganda. Not only did Scullion ‘knowing his attacker’ detach the incident from contemporary unionist violence, it also very subtly (and unsympathetically) profiled him as associating with a man who would stab someone. It was reported months later, following Scullion’s inquest, that the RUC had been given a bullet that had hit Scullion the night he was shot and that they had been told by witnesses that they heard the two shots.

Against a backdrop of increasing violence in Belfast (with significant exposure across the broadcast and print media), John Scullion died of his wounds on 11th June. The RUC continued to perpetuate the myth that he had been stabbed, repeatedly reporting that he knew his attacker and that were merely awaiting him to regain conscious and give them the name. They then reported that he had passed away without divulging the name (even though an exasperated UVF had been claiming responsibility and rang the press to confirm their claim). The State Pathologist in Belfast had to subsequently order that John Scullion’s remains be exhumed to review the cause of death. That revelation and further deaths in UVF violence over the same weekend forced the northern government’s Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill to climb down on a refusal to proscribe the UVF. Arrests and convictions then followed.

A mere five years later, the UVF planted the bomb that destroyed McGurks Bar. As early as 8 am on the morning after the blast, despite being briefed following forensic examination of the scene, the RUC were providing politicians with disinformation that identified the bombers as the IRA and cast doubt on the innocence of some of those caught up in the blast. The RUC persisted with this false version of events for many years even though they had been immediately exposed by eye witness testimony and a telephoned claim of responsibility by unionists. In 1966, Terence O’Neill (unlike the RUC) had been unable or unwilling to continue to providing political cover for the UVF. By 1971, the intersection of RUC, unionist and British Army (and indeed Gerry Fitt’s) interests coalesced sufficiently that no public unraveling of the disinformation was permitted.

So what was the difference between 1966 and 1971? Certainly the scale of the human loss at McGurks would suggest that it should have been less likely that political cover would be provided for the UVF. The only additional participant between 1966 and 1971 is Frank Kitson and the British Army. As Kitson has become something of a bête noire or pantomime villain it is perhaps too easy to see him as the key difference.

At the same time, it is clearly consistent with Kitson’s known methods that the British Army seamlessly grafted itself onto well established practices within the RUC and northern government and, by doing so, assimilated itself into that violent unionist monolith. Subsequent understandings of any events after the McGurks Bar bombing, who directed them, how and why, were and still are completely compromised by the internal dependencies created by that monolithic entity.

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Odd Man Out: a story about the Belfast IRA?

The film Odd Man Out was released in 1947. Based on Lawrie Green’s novel of the same name which had been published in 1945, Green also adapted it for the screenplay. The film was nominated for an Oscar as well as for the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion. It subsequently won a BAFTA award for Best Film in 1948.

The novel sets the scene thus: “This story is told against a background of political unrest in a city of Northern Ireland. It is not concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organisation, but only with the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved.” While it does not specifically name the place as Belfast, it repeatedly references locations in the city. Similarly, the IRA is never openly named, but rather is referred to as ‘the Organisation’ (neatly mirroring the language of contemporary IRA volunteers who referred to it as ‘the Army’). Both the novel and the screen adaption are actually much richer in historical value than is usually appreciated.

Cover of 1946 Book Club edition of the novel.

Cover of 1946 Book Club edition of the novel.

The plot revolves around an escaped IRA leader who participates in a robbery that goes wrong. He kills a cashier in a struggle, is himself wounded and then accidentally left behind by his comrades. The story then plays out over the remainder of that day and night. Green wrote the novel between October 1943 when he finished On the Edge of the Sea and August 1944, when he produced a full typescript. His depiction of the circumstances in which the IRA found itself in 1943-44 and many of the scenes that play out in the novel are taken directly from contemporary events over the same time. Some slight shifts that take place between when Green wrote the novel and the adaptation for the film also mirror political developments between 1944 and 1947. To that extent, arguably the book and film are about the Belfast IRA to a much greater degree than Green’s own disclaimer, quoted above, suggests.

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t watched the film (never mind read the novel), you can watch the whole thing here on Youtube before reading the rest of this:

The IRA leader Johnny, whose surname is ‘Murtah’ in the novel, and ‘McQueen’ when played by James Mason in the film, is referred to a number of times as the ‘Chief of Staff’ in the novel and is described as a recent escapee (about eight months before the events described). He is also described as having been given a lengthy sentence of sixteen years. After his escape he spends a long time hiding in one particular house, apparently in the lower Falls. While Johnny Murtah appears to be a composite of various IRA figures (including Rocky Burns and Jimmy Steele), the basis is clearly Hugh McAteer, the IRA Chief of Staff who had escaped from Crumlin Road in January 1943 and been recaptured in October 1943. The fact that the novel includes a Chief of Staff who is hiding out in Belfast is in itself revealing. The only times an IRA Chief of Staff was ordinarily resident in Belfast  until the 1970s were in late 1942, most of 1943 and again, briefly in 1944-5. This was not necessarily public knowledge.

The robbery that begins both the novel and film is also based on a real life incident, or rather, incidents. The setting is revealed in the novel as being close to Corporation Street, as that is in the district where Johnny first hides out. In January 1942 an IRA unit had robbed the payroll of the Civil Defence Headquarters in Academy Street, close to Corporation Street. During the robbery a clerk was wounded as was one of the IRA volunteers involved, Bob McMillen. In Odd Man Out, Johnny Murtah falls off the car used to escape, which didn’t happen to McMillen. However, it did happen to Louis Duffin after an attempted arms raid on a Newtownards Road RAF barracks earlier in 1943. Duffin was, literally, picked up the RUC (who thought the car had nearly knocked him down) and brought him to a nearby tram stop. If Green knew of this and used it as an element of the story, it too wasn’t widely known in 1945. More recently, while Green wrote Odd Man Out, another botched robbery at Clonard Mill in Odessa Street in October 1943, led to the death of an RUC constable. The setting, and fatality, are much closer to the robbery in Odd Man Out.

Other scenes in the novel appear to echo actual incidents. In Odd Man Out, the rest of the unit involved in the robbery end up in the home of Teresa O’Brien, whose house was normally off-limits to the IRA as she wasn’t trusted. There are hints here of a widow, Mrs Teresa Wright, who lived in Quadrant Street. Shots had been fired at her house on 1st November 1937 and she said that there had been ill-feeling against her in the district and “…Several people had called me an informer when I was passing them on the street…”. The Teresa portrayed in the reporting of the incident is very similar to the Teresa who appears in the novel and film.

Even the two older Protestant women who shelter Johnny Murtah for a while may reflect a reality as Hugh McAteer is known to have used a safe house off the Shankill Road in 1943 after his escape. Despite not being in the public domain in 1944, as with the Louis Duffin story, it may have been that Green had heard these stories and so incorporated them into the fabric of Odd Man Out. Green’s depiction of an under pressure IRA in 1943-44 also appears quite accurate and he alludes to episodes of recent history in passing, such as the 1942 curfew, in a way that seems quite correct.

How would Green have reproduced such details, particularly those elements not in the public domain? He had married Margaret Edwards, daughter of a senior tax inspector from Belfast and the couple had moved to to the city, living in Ulsterville Avenue. While there, Green regularly went to Campbells, a coffee house opposite City Hall. In ‘Culture, Northern Ireland, and the Second World War’, Guy Woodward records that a 1961 BBC documentary included former patrons who descibed Campbells as frequented by the likes of Green, William Conor, Joseph Tomelty (who appears in the film), Denis Ireland and Sam Hanna Bell. It was also remembered as a forum for political, literary and artistic debate in the 1930s and 1940s.

This is equally evident in Green including caricatures of John Hewitt (Griffin) and John Luke (Lukey) in Odd Man Out. Hewitt, in particular, was irked at being heavily satirised by Green as Griffin: “There was hardly a platform he could prevent himself from taking, and from which he theorised in a robust, crisp, fashion…“. In reference to Odd Man Out, Green also reputedly chastised his contemporaries in the arts community in Belfast that “…I’m writing what you and your friends should be writing about, the drama’s that are going on here. You people are ignoring what is going on on your own doorstep.” (recorded by W.J. McCormack in his 2015 biography Northman: John Hewitt 1907-1987 – An Irish Writer, His World and His Times).

Denis Ireland’s presence among the Campbell’s set is significant. Ireland had served as an officer in the First World War and had subsequently founded the ‘Ulster Union’ club, a republican debating group (which you would never guess from the name). A number of members of the Union had gone on to join the IRA, including John Graham, a key figure on McAteer’s IRA staff. Johnny Murtah’s deputy in the IRA may even be named ‘Denis’ as an homage to Denis Ireland while simultaneously alluding to John Graham.

Repeatedly throughout the novel, as published in 1945, Green was very critical of the IRA and what he presents as the utter futility of its most recent campaign. This is very much toned down by 1947, in the film. In a very early scene, he has Johnny McQueen (James Mason) after much time thinking in his safe house, muse on whether the IRA would be better off pursing a political course: “…we could throw the guns away … make our cause in the parliaments instead of in the back streets.” This too reflects a certain amount of reality. According to Hugh McAteer, the IRA was privately debating the futility of its own campaign in the first half of 1943, largely in the safe houses in which he and Jimmy Steele were hiding. By the time the film was made, Denis Ireland himself was on his way to becoming a Clann na Poblachta nominee to the Seanad in 1948. Johnny McQueen’s speech about the parliaments directly reflects the thinking behind Clann na Poblachta, which was founded in July 1946 by ex-IRA Chief of Staff Sean McBride. This modification of the politics between the novel and film suggests that Green was concerned with the authenticity of his depiction of the IRA, which strengthens the argument that his work has considerable historical value.

Denis Ireland’s presence in Green’s life may have been his source on details of the IRA in Belfast at the time, some of which were not available in the public domain. That political transition evidenced in McQueen’s speech in the 1947 also suggests Ireland as an influence. But not everyone was happy with the depiction of the IRA in the film. One criticism, by Nichevo (Bertie Smylie), in ‘An Irishman’s Diary’ in The Irish Times has a wonderfully contemporary air of hysterical outrage that wouldn’t be out of place in today’s Sunday Independent or Irish Times:

There is no doubt that it is a really good film. There equally is no doubt that, in essence, it amounts to a glorification of the IRA! If I had been a youth, emerging from the Theatre Royal on Sunday night, and saw on the walls of Trinity College the slogan “Join the IRA”, I have not the least doubt that I should have been sorely tempted to do so! All the romance is on the side of the “the Organisation”. James Mason gives a magnificent performance as Johnny McQueen; and, although the name of the IRA never was mentioned, nobody who knows anything about this country in general, or of Belfast in particular, can have the least doubt concerning the “Organisation’s” identity. So much for that!

Disinformation and propaganda: violence in Belfast in 1966

In January 1966, the northern government’s Minister of Home Affairs, Brian McConnell made very public calls for the IRA to have the ‘good sense’ to not get involved in violence in the upcoming  1916 commemorations.

Then, in February 1966, an RUC vehicle and unionist party HQ were petrol-bombed. The petrol bomb was thrown at an RUC landrover at Andersonstown on the night of 10th February (in Commedagh Drive), while the Unionist party HQ was attacked on 18th February. The next night, in ‘reprisal’, St Gerard’s primary school on the Antrim Road was vandalised and a fire bomb thown at St John’s primary school in west Belfast. St Joseph’s primary school in Crumlin was also attacked. The IRA vehemently denied any connection to the incidents and issued a statement of denial from the ‘Republican Movement’ to the press through the Irish Republican Publicity Bureau on 22nd February (notably, unionist false flag attacks were to be a clear feature of the next few years). On the night of 24th February two petrol bombs were thrown at the Broadway Presbyterian Church. 

Then, in March, the Belfast Battalion O/C Billy McMillen and a staff officer, Denis Toner, were arrested and ended up being held over the Easter period. Meantimes, another petrol bomb was thrown, this time at Holy Cross Girls School on the Crumlin Road. That same March, Gerry Fitt had taken the Westminister seat of West Belfast for Republican Labour in a general election. He was the first non-unionist to take the seat since Jack Beattie in 1951 and for the first time, since the same election, the IRA hadn’t stood a candidate (notably, 58.8% of the vote in 1964 had gone to non-unionists). The IRA wasn’t to put a candidate up against Fitt again until 1974.

The first of the Easter Rising commemoration events was the conventional Easter Sunday commemoration. The main events were then to take place the next weekend.

On the following Sunday, the fiftieth anniversary Easter Rising Commemoration itself took place. That morning, unionists detonated a bomb at Milltown in the republican plot but it did little damage. A second bomb was also exploded at Ligoniel. 
The RUC mounted armed checkpoints across Belfast throughout the day as Ian Paisley also had organised counter parades to try and disrupt the republican commemorations (ironically, Paisley’s marchers paraded behind a banner saying ‘Ireland belongs to Christ’). A number of people heading for the republican commemorations were assaulted, including one man almost beaten death as he tried to cross a road through Paisley’s marchers.

The main republican march formed up in the old Pound Loney district in Hamill Street, Institution Place, John Street and Barrack Street. Some 5,000 took part in the parade, but an estimated 70,000 people came out to watch. The presence of many senior republican figures underscored the emphasis the IRA placed on the Belfast commemoration in 1966. One veteran IRA volunteer who joined the march, Chris McGouran, collapsed and died while walking during the parade.

The northern government, discomforted by the scale and enthusiasm of the commemorations, had the Belfast Battalion Adjutant, Jim Sullivan, and two other staff officers, Malachy McBurney and Leo Martin, charged with failing to give sufficient notice for the commemoration and for conducting what was then an illegal procession.

While Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin had been blown up by republicans in March, despite all the unionist claims to the contrary, no violent action had been planned by the Belfast Battalion. Yet in April, an additional battalion of the British Army had even been sent to the north, just in case they were needed. In the weekend after the main 1966 commemorations, a Catholic owned shop of the Shankil Road, O’Hara’s Self-Service Stores, was petrol bombed although little damage was done. The same night, a family in Hopewell Street had three shots fired into their house from a moving car.

That unionists were behind the attacks was apparent at the start of May, as the newly reorganised Ulster Volunteer Force publicly threatened that “…known IRA men will be executed mercilessly and without hesitation.” On the 7th May, it tried to firebomb a Catholic owned bar in Upper Charleville Street (in the Shankill Road area of Belfast), but instead set fire to the adjoining home of Matilda Gould, who subsequently died from her injuries (on 27th June). The same night, a petrol bomb was thrown at the home of Josephine MacMahon on Northumberland Street and two petrol bombs were thrown at St Marys Training College on the Falls Road. At a debate that followed in Stormont, the Home Affairs Minister, Brian McConnell revealed there had now been eight such petrol bomb attacks in March, April and May.

A couple of weeks later, on 27th May, UVF members shot John Scullion in Oranmore Street having originally been trying to find and kill Francis McGuigan, a Belfast IRA volunteer. The RUC reported that Scullion had been stabbed and that they believed he knew the name of his attackers. However, it was reported at Scullions in quest that they were given the two bullets that had hit Scullion the night he was shot.

At the start of June, a unionist crowd, led by Ian Paisley, was permitted to march through Cromac Square in the Markets area. Unionist marches had been discouraged from passing through there since 1935. Paisley was en route to protest a Presbyterian General Assembly. The resulting riot at Cromac Square restarted the next night when two petrol bombs were then thrown at the RUC by the IRA in Lagan Street in the Markets on June 8th. A few days later, John Scullion died of his wounds (on 11th June). The RUC had perpetuated the idea that he was stabbed, repeatedly reporting that he knew his attacker and that were awaiting him to regain conscious and give them the name. They then reported that he had passed away without divulging the name (even though the UVF had been claiming responsibility and rang the press to confirm their claim). A few days after Scullion died, the UVF fired shots into Willaim Gamble’s shop in the Shankill Road district.  A brick had also been thrown through the window some days previously.

There were further attacks at the end of June. Just before those attacks happened, the State Pathologist in Belfast ordered that John Scullion’s remains be exhumed to review the cause of death (he had been buried just over a week previously). On the 20th, Jim Sullivan, Malachy McBurney and Leo Martin didn’t turn up in court for a scheduled appearance to hear the charges over the Easter commemoration and had fines imposed by the court in absentia.

The next day, Terence O’Neill, the Prime Minister of the northern government, claimed there was no reason to use the Special Powers Act against the unionists who had been claiming responsibility for recent violence. Then, during the night of 24th-25th, unionists broke into Leo Martin’s house in Baden-Powell Street in the Oldpark district. They tried to set fire to the house with little success. It later emerged that it was three UVF men that had tried to break in, intending to shoot Martin. That night, two armed unionists also entered the house of Thomas Maguire on Canmore Street, between the Falls Road and Shankill Road. Maguire was disabled but still had a gun put to his stomach and told to leave his home. Several hours earlier a friend, who had been visiting Maguire’s house, was stabbed after leaving the house. There were a number of other attacks involving minor vandalism and bomb hoaxes at the houses of prominent Catholics on the same night. There were also attacks on six houses in Ardmoulin Avenue.

The same night, the UVF unit that had failed to find Leo Martin at his home, instead encountered four Catholic barmen drinking in the Malvern Arms in Malvern Street off the Shankill. The UVF shot the barmen outside, wounding two and killing Peter Ward. Two days later, Matilda Gould died from the injuries she had sustained in May.

The Belfast IRA issued a statement on the day after Matilda Gould died, stating that “The Republican movement condemns in the strongest possible terms the recent outrages in Belfast, and expresses deepest sympathy with the relatives of all those killed and wounded in these incidents. We would reiterate that Republicans are utterly opposed to sectarian bitterness and strie and would remind our members that their duty is to resist all efforts to provoke them into acts of relationation. Discipline and self-restraint must be exercised by all.

The cumulative effect of the deaths of Scullion, Ward and Gould was that the northern government was forced to declare the UVF an illegal organisation. It also made a series of arrests and proferred charges against those involved.

A British royal visit at the start of July then led to some confrontations and protests. There were further attacks over the weekend of the Twelfth. This incuded a Catholic couple, the Donnelly’s, being assaulted in their home in Frenchpark Street on the 12th July. A mob also attacked houses in Rockview Street. Robert Donnelly was one of three people who received serious head injuries. The same night windows were broken in Charles O’Hara’s shop on the Newtonards Road. His window had been smashed during the election earlier that year and a petrol also thrown at the shop. There were further attacks in late July, on Catholics in Alloa Street between Manor Street and Clifton Park Avenue.

Having failed to turn up for their court appearance in June, Jim Sullivan and Malachy McBurney were arrested and given three months in jail. The trial of the UVF members (in which Ian Paisley was also named) dragged on over the summer and into August and September.

It was only in late August that the northern government officially admitted that John Scullion had been shot rather than stabbed despite having known this was the case from the night it happened. The pattern of RUC behaviour over Scullion’s murder has clear echoes of what was to become a familiar routine in the coming years. It also shows up an existing native capacity for disinformation and propaganda, long before the arrival of specialist British Army staff in 1969.