Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

How IRA spin helped cause another historical injustice

Forty years ago this weekend three men were shot dead in one of the most contentious incidents of the Troubles. Alan Murray reports

James McCurrie was on his way home to Ardilaun Street near the Catholic enclave of Short Strand in east Belfast. When he turned into Bryson Street, he was shot dead.

Robert Neill had been drinking for most of Saturday, June 27, 1970, and had gone to his Central Street home to sleep it off. The sound of gunfire brought him to the top of the street where he was shot dead.

Henry McIlhone was a Catholic fatally wounded inside the grounds of St Matthew's church that Saturday evening. He died two days later.

For more than 30 years the IRA has advanced what the McCurrie family and the Protestant community in the area say is a myth - that the IRA hastily gathered up guns to defend St Matthew's from a rampaging loyalist mob.

This weekend Sinn Fein will 'celebrate' what it describes as the heroic defence of St Matthew's. It admits that the Provisional IRA leader in Belfast, Billy McKee, was in the grounds of St Matthew's and was wounded in the shooting, but little else of fact - unionists say - about the circumstances of the weekend.

A recent report by the Historical Enquiries Team to Jimmy McCurrie's widow Kathleen describes her husband as "an innocent victim" of events. A letter sent by Dave Cox, the head of HET, confirms that "there is no intelligence or evidence to show that James had ever been involved in any illegal activity, or had association with any paramilitary organisation".

The McCurrie family is bitter that what they describe as IRA 'propaganda' has for more than three decades portrayed James McCurrie, Robert Neil and more than 20 Protestants shot by the IRA that weekend as part of a mob attempting to sack St Matthew's.

"My father was a totally innocent man coming home. The HET report confirms that and says that the IRA fired the first shots that night," said his daughter Mary.

"Every year the IRA peddles lies about what happened in 1970. Billy McKee is a liar and a coward. The IRA murdered my father and Robert Neill and, now it is emerging, Henry McIlhone, too."

Until recently, the largely unchallenged IRA version of Henry McIlhone's death was that of a defender inside the grounds of St Matthew's shot dead by a loyalist gunman.

However, it has now been established that Henry McIlhone was not a member of the IRA - even though his name was inscribed on its 'Roll of Honour' - and moreover was almost certainly shot dead by the IRA.

Some credibility is being given to the suggestion that the IRA gunman who fatally wounded him was Denis Donaldson - the leading Sinn Fein figure unmasked as a British agent in December 2005 and shot dead in Donegal five months later.

Within the unionist community in east Belfast, great effort is now being put into challenging the IRA's version of events. The HET report states that around 10.30pm on the Saturday opposing crowds of unionists and nationalists assembled at Seaforde Street, Wolff Street and Gertrude Street.

An offensive remark was shouted about the Pope, passions became inflamed and there were exchanges of verbal abuse before police intervened.

A tricolour was then brandished and the crowd surged into Seaforde Street where bottles and stones were thrown from both sides.

"Two men with either pistols or revolvers then came from the direction of Seaforde Street, from the mainly Catholic group, and began firing shots at the Protestant crowd who scattered in all directions," the HET report states. "A number of people were injured at this time.

"More shots were then fired from the direction of Seaforde Street and a short time later shots were fired from St Matthew's chapel and grounds."

The HET report into her father's death, says Mary McCurrie, explodes the myth that the IRA was defending St Matthew's. "It's a lie. They murdered my father in cold blood.

"Bloody Sunday was investigated for 11 years. I want my father's murder fully investigated, too."

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