Where did the deception over the 1971 McGurk’s Bar bombing that victimised those killed, their families and community originate? One person, John Taylor (now Lord Kilclooney), seemed central to that question but had more or less eluded any discussion of the matter. Finally, over social media, he answered some questions yesterday.
The current evidence is that the British Army’s Army Technical Officer had completed preliminary analysis of the scene and identified the seat of the blast as being outside the building and, based on what was visible, that around forty to fifty pounds of gelignite had been used (you can read much more about the bombing on Ciaran MacAirt’s blog here and in his book on the bombing). This was consistent with the eye-witness evidence and claim of responsibility by the UVF (using the cover name ‘Empire Loyalists’). This had been communicated and logged by 11.10 am in the situation report on the morning of the 5th December.
During that day, John Taylor, the junior Home Affairs Minister, spoke to the press and indicated that he believed the Provisional IRA to be responsible, with his comments reported in the press the next day. I am unaware of the content of radio or television reports on the day and whether they broadcast on the 5th as well. That the blast was an “IRA own-goal” became the official version of the bombing up to 1977 when a UVF member, Robert Campbell, was convicted of the bombing.
One key question around McGurk’s Bar is – where did the own-goal claim originate? Whoever was involved in the original planning for the bombing at 8.45 pm on 4th December hadn’t incorporated the deception into their design since the UVF made a claim of responsibility, albeit under a cover name. Nor did the deception emerge as a mistake in the technical assessment of the scene since it can be shown to have accurately been reported by 11.10 am on the morning of the 5th December.
A number of possibilities exist. One is that it was a genuine mistake but this is simply implausible and appears to be contradicted by the reports from the Army Technical Officer on 5th December. A second is that political sympathies motivated someone to promote the deception to either cover for the UVF, attack the IRA or a combination of the two. The person, or persons, involved could have been within or across various organisations, including some or all of the RUC, British Army, civil service and the governing Unionist Party. Whatever the origin, it first emerges into the public record with John Taylor on 5th December, who then further elaborated the deception in Stormont on 7th December. This puts Taylor, then junior Minister for Home Affairs in the northern government, at the centre of the deception.
But what was Taylor’s role. Was he simply the spokesperson who had been briefed by his staff and spoke to media accordingly? Or had he given an off-the-cuff statement on 5th December and the deception subsequently emerged through attempts of the Ministry of Home Affairs staff attempting to ‘work towards the minister’ by creating a fictional story to match comments he had made in public. The third, of course, is that Taylor was an active party to the creation of the deception.
Up to now, Taylor has studiously avoided any engagement with those investigating the circumstances around the bombing. Yet, recently, he had joined Twitter (as @KilclooneyJohn) and begun to post and comment on social media. His social media usage probably reflects the abilities that brought such a meteoric career. He was the rising star of unionist politics in the 1960s where he was destined for senior government roles while only in his early thirties. He sustained significant gunshot wounds when the Official IRA tried to kill him in February 1972, only to later serve as a Councillor, MP, MEP, MLA and now in the House of Lords, while simultaneously managing his own group of newspaper companies. Now 79, his ready adoption and use of social media suggests a mind that has retained it’s sharpness despite a busy and eventful life.
So I took an opportunity to ask him a question as he was responding to questions about MI5 that I happened to be copied in to. This led to the exchange below transcribed more or less verbatim (for ease of reading I’ve corrected spelling mistakes and expanded acronyms but little else). On a number of occasions it branched into parallel conversations with others, but for clarity, I’ve added them as footnotes. Ultimately I was interested in Taylor recounting his memory of the events of the 5th December to see if cast any light on how the McGurks Bar deception came into being. Did he make an off-the-cuff remark blaming the IRA that Department staff then took as a guide and provided him briefing notes to support his own, incorrect, statement. Or was Taylor central to the creation of the deception?
In correspondence, in person and online he had continually evaded detailed questions about McGurks Bar. As it happened, I had been copied into an existing conversation with Taylor on Twitter. In response to a question about MI5 he had said.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): The answer is simple. As Minister of State at Home Affairs I worked with Police and Army but NEVER MI5.
So I’d responded and the rest is below…
John Ó Néill: But you won’t answer questions regarding work with army and police, e.g. with regards to McGurks Bar, so denials about MI5 are difficult to credit.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): My statement in Parliament about the terrible bomb at McGurks Bar was prepared by the Home Affairs Secretariat. After I was not involved!!
John Ó Néill: Did you feel you were misled. Or (in retrospect) that it was an error of judgement to keep pushing the own goal line when it was untrue. (see 1 below)
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): After the IRA assassination attempt and my removal from Home Affairs I had no role; responsibility; or knowledge of events at McGurks Bar. (see 2 below)
John Ó Néill: Obviously, I don’t think anyone with any sense would think otherwise. Your knowledge and perspective on all this is a glaring gap in the public record. You’d be doing a great service to maybe have (private!) correspondence with @ciaranmacairt to explore it in more depth.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): I have no further information about the terrible McGurks Bar bomb than was advised to me three days after the bomb by the Secretariat!
John Ó Néill: As Home Affairs Minister, didn’t you expect to be briefed on the night of the bombing and the next day? Were you being kept in the dark?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): I was not Home Affairs Minister. I was Minister of State and stood in at times on behalf of the Minister of Home Affairs who was Brian Faulkner.
John Ó Néill: I take your point. It still seems odd that you weren’t being repeatedly briefed, given the gravity of what was happening.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): I was not briefed because I was Minister of State and NOT Minister of Home Affairs. I did not even know that internment had been introduced!
John Ó Néill: But John, your first statement was day after bomb (here’s Irish Indo report on 6th), 2 days before you say you were briefed for Stormont.
I then quoted this text from the Irish Independent on 6th December 1971:
“In the North, Mr John Taylor, Junior Minister of State for Home Affairs, said he was “aghast” such an event had taken place. I don’t care whether the people are Roman Catholic or Protestant, Republican or Unionist. It is a tragedy indeed that Irishmen should die in this way at this time. He said: “I personally would be very surprised if this were the start of a Protestant backlash. The evidence at the moment is that the Protestant community are facing up to the IRA campaign in a very responsible manner and are quite prepared to leave the initiative to the politicians and to the security forces. I would dismiss the idea that it was the Protestants. The role of the Provisional IRA which ash been criticised by the Official IRA, is to try and create sectarian bitterness and they already exploded several pubs on the Shankill Road and Ormeau Road.” (see 3 below)
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): Information on this tragic bomb changed with time. I was only involved in the early stage as junior to Home Affairs Minister. After 3 months I ceased.
John Ó Néill: Your initial response on 5th, though, reflected what was put out as disinformation rather than the truth which press reported on same day.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): Different press say different things! Do not generalise by using the term “press”.
John Ó Néill: But on 5th Dec, all the ‘press’ consistently reported eye witness testimony and ‘Empire Loyalist’ claims. You dismissed those reports.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): My statement was based upon initial police and forensic advice. As Minister I could do no other!
John Ó Néill: Well, the press from the time shows you were first person (on 5th) to voice what was later shown to be deliberate disinformation from RUC.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): My statement was based upon initial police and forensic advice. As Minister I could do no other!
John Ó Néill: ATO/RUC knew truth by 11am on Dec 5. And you are first person on record with false account later on 5th, two days before Stormont statement. (see 4 below – an ATO is an Army Technical Officer, often called the Bomb Squad)
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): I stand over all my statements.
John Ó Néill: But you can’t explain origin of what you said on the 5th Dec that became the lie that was perpetrated on 7th Dec in Stormont and after?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): Anything I said was on advice of Home Affairs Secretariat. I was always strict about this.
John Ó Néill: So they briefed you on 5th Dec when they had access to ATO report. Yet they had you promote a false claim. Wow, that’s a serious allegation.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): I was always careful to abide by advice from Secretariat.
John Ó Néill: You do realise, then, that that same secretariat used you to cover up mass murder and victimise those killed and their families?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): That is your opinion. I am not usually used! In this case I was being advised by Home Affairs Secretariat and deputising for unavailable Minister.
John Ó Néill: But that’s your words (not my opinion) – Secretariat had you promote (what they knew to be) a false claim as to responsibility on 5th Dec.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): Home Affairs Secretariat would have advised information on basis of facts available to it at that particular time. Facts can change!!
John Ó Néill: Public record shows Secretariat had full facts by 11.10 on 5/12/71. That’s not in doubt. Question is origin of false claim. Them? RUC?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): I have no idea as I was not involved – as Minister I was responsible for fire service; road safety etc. Prime Minister was responsible for security etc.
John Ó Néill: In public record false claim starts with you on 5th Dec (not Stormont statement on 7th). Yet you are unable to explain its origin.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): All comment was as advised by Home Affairs Secretariat.
John Ó Néill: Who would that involve from Secretariat. What were their roles? Department Secretary General or Under Secretary. Or specific advisers?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): Cannot recall.
John Ó Néill: It would be useful to identify who briefed you as their role in other matters needs to be scrutinised given severity of issues involved.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): Sorry cannot recall the individuals.
John Ó Néill: You could check your own papers/diaries as historical record, as it stands, has you hung out to dry on promoting false claim re McGurks.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): I can assure you I acted honourably as basis of official advice.
John Ó Néill: Well, those who advised you then have left you, rightly or wrongly, to become a villain of the tragedy of McGurks Bar.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): Not a villain but one who honourably accepted advice.
John Ó Néill: But currently false claim about McGurks can only be traced back as far as you on 5th Dec 1971. Only you can trace it back to actual source.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): Would like to but afraid I cannot help.
John Ó Néill: Ok. But in absence of any further information, it’ll be hard to persuade people that you weren’t ultimately responsible for the false claim.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): I can only claim to have acted on advice and therefore honourably. Regrettably I was unable to remain in post to articulate any new facts.
John Ó Néill: I’m not sure that holds up as a defence. As a senior figure in Home Affairs you bear responsibility unless you have proof you were misled.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): I acted on advice given to me. I had no reason to believe that I was being misled and, since I have never been involved since, I do not.
John Ó Néill: But John, on 5th Dec and again on 7th you advanced false claims about McGurks. If you weren’t misled, it makes you a party to the deception?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): At the time they were the best advice available to me and not false.
John Ó Néill: If you were briefed after 11.10 am 5/12/1971 (at the very latest), you were given verifiably false information. It was not ‘best advice’.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): As far as I was concerned it was the only advice available.
John Ó Néill: Given the scale of loss of life, only the most senior people (who knew the truth) in RUC and army would have briefed you and Home Affairs.
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): I was not briefed by army nor police. Only by Department.
John Ó Néill: But you would have understood Department to have been briefed by RUC and army?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): Yes that is correct.
John Ó Néill: So you spoke to press after Department briefed you on 5/12/71. They hadn’t said ATO reported bomb was outside. When did you first hear the truth?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): What you call the truth is different for me. I was only briefly involved in subject and truth was what I was advised in that short period.
John Ó Néill: Well, when did you first hear bomb was planted outside McGurks and it had been work of UVF? Before the murder attempt on you or much later?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): I do not recall hearing that.
John Ó Néill: Even after the trial of Robert Campbell for the bomb in 1977? At no point did you feel you needed to revisit the advice given to you?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): No I have never revisited the subject.
John Ó Néill: But do you remember when you first heard it had been the UVF and not the IRA?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): No.
John Ó Néill: And at no point on 5th Dec 1971 did you ask Department officials why you were contradicting Empire Loyalists claim and eye witness evidence?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): I did not accept such sources as reliable information just as I do not accept ISIS claims today.
John Ó Néill: On the day after the bombing, were you formally briefed or simply given a heads up by someone in the Department?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): No recollection.
John Ó Néill: But you do agree that you must have been briefed the day after the bombing (5th) as well as before making the Commons statement on the 7th?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): Sorry. No recollection.
John Ó Néill: Ok. You said you would only have spoken to press after being briefed. You first advanced the IRA theory on 5th Dec. So you’d been briefed?
John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney): No idea.
John Ó Néill: This is what you said on 5th Dec. Had you been briefed to say this?
To this I added the same text from the Irish Independent on 6th December 1971 that I had added earlier:
“In the North, Mr John Taylor, Junior Minister of State for Home Affairs, said he was “aghast” such an event had taken place. I don’t care whether the people are Roman Catholic or Protestant, Republican or Unionist. It is a tragedy indeed that Irishmen should die in this way at this time. He said: “I personally would be very surprised if this were the start of a Protestant backlash. The evidence at the moment is that the Protestant community are facing up to the IRA campaign in a very responsible manner and are quite prepared to leave the initiative to the politicians and to the security forces. I would dismiss the idea that it was the Protestants. The role of the Provisional IRA which ash been criticised by the Official IRA, is to try and create sectarian bitterness and they already exploded several pubs on the Shankill Road and Ormeau Road.”
There has been no response to this last question, to date.
So does any of this help us understand Taylor’s role? He initially insisted that he only spoke when briefed by the Department (meaning Home Affairs). When first challenged over his statement on 5th December he states that information on the bomb changed over time, by then he was no longer in a ministerial position. He also said that he always ignored claims of responsibility and eye witness statements as unreliable. I’ll come back to these points in a second.
Later, Taylor continually insisted he would only have made a statement after being briefed, specifically by Department officials, not by the police or army. What is surprising, I think, in light of this, is that he refused to admit to ever having any curiosity as to where the deception about McGurk’s came from, nor any idea of when he first heard the truth. Neither could he point to who had originally briefed him with the false information about McGurk’s Bar. That seems extraordinary, in retrospect, if he had surely been an unknowing accomplice in promoting the deception about McGurk’s Bar.
Notionally, the thrust of Taylor’s responses are that his statement on 5th December (which was carried by the press) was based on his own dismissal of the ‘Empire Loyalist’ claim and the eye witnesses that saw the bomb being left at the door of the bar. He seems to specifically exclude that he was formally briefed by either the RUC, army or Department staff (as they only seem to have briefed him for his speech to Stormont on the 7th December and provided information from the RUC and army for him). By a process of exclusion, Taylor effectively removes everyone else from the genesis of the McGurk’s Bar deception story, other than the first person who is documented as advancing the claim that it was the IRA – himself.
Obviously, it may have been a politically motivated, off-the-cuff statement on 5th December and the deception subsequently emerged through attempts of the Ministry of Home Affairs staff attempting to ‘work towards the minister’. But the subsequent lack of curiosity or memory of discovering the truth doesn’t suggest someone who was ever unaware of that the official version was a lie.
As Ciarán MacAirt has pointed out – in the hidden records about the bombing the RUC deception might have began before 8am on 5th December and was then transmitted throughout intelligence channels. On the 7th December, Taylor uses the same address, 83 Great George Street, in Stormont rather than North Queen Street. But this document may have been prepared as events unfolded and so we don’t know if it reflects the position at 8.45am or later in the day once the false line had been created. John Taylor may know the truth. Was it the RUC?
We fall into uncomfortable territory here, though. Taylor, like many others, is a prisoner of events that are not yet in the past and silenced by the real absence of peace. As the Boston History project evidenced, we haven’t yet transitioned to a post-conflict dynamic where individuals can honestly and openly discuss their knowledge of the past in a way that, while it might not bring relief to those who suffered by their actions, can at least allow us to know what really happened. At least then, people would, if nothing else, know the truth.
1. @BobSmithWalker also asked a question at the same time: “But after you learned the truth did you counter your own statement? Forgive me if you already did so but I’m not aware that you did?”
2. There was second stream to the conversation at this point beginning with @BobSmithWalker asking: “You served in 3 parliaments thereafter. Was there really no parliamentary opportunity to correct your statement, over a 30 year period?” To which John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney) said “Not at all because I was no longer responsible or in possession of any information. The subject was serious and not one for speculation.” Niall O Murchu then asked a question on the same thread, “Looking back, is it fair to say you were probably misled? It’s already been proved the MoD misled the Westminster cabinet about the bombing.” My next comments were part of this same conversation.
3. There was a second, overlapping, conversation at this point as Ciarán MacAirt pointed out “RUC Chief Constable Shillington and Head of Special Branch told lies directly to you, PM Faulkner and GOC Tuzo in JSC on 16th Dec 1971” To which John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney) replied “Chief Constable Shillington did not tell me directly lies – he did not speak to me – you are becoming irresponsible by making false claims!”. Niall Ó Murchú then pointed out: “I know it’s uncomfortable to admit it Mr Taylor, but they really did lie. They did a proper stitch up job.” But John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney) continued to disagree, “They did not lie. They advised on the basis of advice available at the time. Advice. Shillington was a most honourable man. He would not have lied. He would have stuck strictly to the facts available to him at the time.” Ciarán MacAirt then stated “I have just shown you Shillington lied to you in the JSC of 16th Dec 1971. PSNI cannot even present false intelligence for Shillington’s lie to you” to which Niall Ó Murchú added “Mr Taylor, is it possible Mr Shillington was lied to first?”. To which John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney) said, “I would hope not but one cannot say ‘definitely not’. Who knows??”.
4. Ciarán MacAirt asked two questions, “Mr Taylor, if RUC admitted that #McGurks was attacked by UVF (as per the evidence), would NI Gov have had to intern alleged PUL extremists? Mr Taylor, so would Mr Faulkner have had to intern alleged PUL extremists (as he promised Mr Heath in August 1971)? In response, John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney) said “I do not know. I did not know he was interning anyone until after it had happened. Actually I was in Dublin when it happened!!” Then, @McNeice1989 also asked “Do you rescind your statement made on the 7th?” To this John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney) replied “I stand over all my statements.” At this point I rejoined the conversation.