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HET report into McGurk’s Bar bombing to be quashed in its entirety, judge rules


The scene of the McGurk's Bar bombing in north Belfast after the explosion in 1971

The scene of the McGurk's Bar bombing in north Belfast after the explosion in 1971

The scene of the McGurk's Bar bombing in north Belfast after the explosion in 1971

A contentious police report into the McGurk’s Bar bomb atrocity is to be quashed in its entirety, a High Court judge has ruled.

Mr Justice Humphreys ordered complete binning of the Historical Enquiries Team (HET)’s review because findings within it of no bias in the original RUC investigation were irrational.

He said: “It is not possible to remedy this legal wrong by mere excision.”

The verdict represents victory for relatives of those killed in the loyalist attack on the pub in north Belfast - one of the bloodiest in the history of the Troubles.

Fifteen people were murdered and many others injured when an Ulster Volunteer Force bomb detonated on December 4, 1971, causing the building to collapse.

In 2011 Northern Ireland’s Police Ombudsman identified investigative bias in how the RUC handled the case.

The watchdog concluded that detectives failed to properly probe loyalist paramilitary responsibility for the bombing because they were so focused on the mistaken view that the IRA was to blame.

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At the time of the attack it was suggested that it may have been an accidental "own goal".

But a separate review in 2014 carried out by the police's now defunct HET reached a different verdict.

It claimed there was no evidence of any bias on the part of the RUC investigators.

Those findings were challenged by Brigid Irvine, whose mother Kathleen was among those killed in the attack.

Despite the court being told back in September 2015 that the Chief Constable at the time, George Hamilton, was no longer contesting the Police Ombudsman’s conclusions, Ms Irvine's lawyers continued to press for the entire HET report to be quashed.

At a hearing last month it emerged that the PSNI has accepted the finding of no investigative bias was irrational and contrary to the weight of evidence.

The judge said those concessions rendered the HET’s conclusions on the issue “wholly ill founded, unsustainable and illogical”.

“It is rare for a public authority to admit that it has behaved irrationally,” he said.

Competing submissions centred on a dispute about whether the report should be edited or completely scrapped as a “nuclear option”.

Senior counsel for Ms Irvine claimed the court had been misled for years into believing the Chief Constable saw nothing unlawful about the HET’s conduct.

Seeking full expungement of the HET review findings, he argued that the victims’ families were stigmatised for years after the bombing because police wrongly briefed politicians and the public that it had been an IRA attack.

Lawyers representing the Chief Constable resisted those calls by insisting everything else in the report is unimpeached.

However, Mr Justice Humphreys decided against an alternative option to remove references to the issue of investigative bias.

“Having carefully considered the competing positions, and recognising that there is much in the HET report which is uncontroversial, I have nonetheless concluded that the proportionate and efficacious remedy is for the court to quash the HET report in its entirety,” he said.

“The findings in relation to investigative bias are infected by irrationality and it is not possible to remedy this legal wrong by mere excision.

“To do so would cause the HET report to fail to meet its stated objectives and, in particular, render it incapable of addressing a key issue as far as the applicant and the families of the victims are concerned.

The judge confirmed: “The applicant’s claim therefore succeeds, and I make an order of certiorari in relation to the HET report dated May 20, 2014.”

Brigid Irvine’s sister, Pat, expressed delight at the ruling, but insisted the report should have been scrapped much sooner.

Aged 14 at the time of the bomb attack which killed her mother and left her father injured, she recalled: “I attended the scene not knowing that both my parents were lying under this scene of total destruction.

“I cannot even begin to describe the horror of what I saw.”

Ms Irvine said the lives of those who lost loved ones were also destroyed.

All the families have endured over 50 years of suffering along with the lies, the denials and the delays in finding the truth,” she stressed.

“The Chief Constable has continued to defend this case for almost eight years, and stood over an HET report that he must have known could never have been acceptable to the families of those killed in McGurks.”

Her solicitor, Paul Pierce of KRW Law, described the judgment as an important and unprecedented outcome.

Mr Pierce added: “The HET ignored fundamental concerns raised by the victims’ families over investigative bias, which from the outset attempted to blame those killed in McGurks as being responsible for the explosion.”

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