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.
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.