Recriminations still fly over McGurk's Bar massacre
It is yet another of Northern Ireland’s historical controversies that refuses to go away.
On the evening of December 4, 1971, the UVF planted a 50lb bomb on the doorstep of a family-run bar in north Belfast killing 15 people and injuring 16 others. No warning was given.
The explosion led to the single biggest loss of life in Northern Ireland in the Troubles until the bombing of Omagh in 1998.
A UVF team was sent from a pub in west Belfast to blow up the Gem bar in the same street, which had perceived allegiances to the Official Republican movement. When the bombers arrived, however, the Gem had men standing outside so, after waiting for more than an hour, the loyalists decided that any Catholic pub would do.
That evening, the McGurk family pub was their choice.
Inside Thomas Kane, Robert Spotswood and James Smyth had taken up their usual seats along the bar.
Nearby Thomas McLaughlin, his uncle and two of their friends were busy chatting and laughing. Behind them Philip Garry was having a quiet pint, and close by Francis Bradley and David Milligan were relaxing after a week’s work. In the corner Edward Kane was chatting to a friend.
Upstairs 13-year-old James Cromie was playing table football, while John Colton got ready to help in the bar below. The landlord’s wife Philomena McGurk and their only daughter, Maria had just come in home from confession. Edward and Sarah Keenan had arrived and joined Kitty Irvine and her husband.
As the blast ripped through the small pub the walls and roof collapsed on top of the innocent people, who just moments before had been enjoying an evening with family and friends. Those who were not crushed or suffocated were horrifically burned when shattered gas mains burst into flames beneath the rubble.
For four decades allegations of collusion and cover-up have surrounded the atrocity.
Just hours after the blast the Army said that that the bomb was clearly inside the pub and it was an IRA ‘own goal’.
A duty report compiled by three RUC inspectors appeared to back up that theory stating that “just before the explosion a man entered the licensed premises and left down a suitcase, presumably to be picked up by a known member of the Provisional IRA. The bomb was intended for use on other premises”.
A short time later the then Home Affairs Minister John Taylor said on television and in Stor
mont that the bomb was an IRA bomb. The former minister, who said he was briefed by Home Office staff, said that there was no question that the bombing was a Protestant paramilitary operation.
In 1972 forensic scientist Dr Robert Alan Hall concluded that pathology reports did not support the theory that the explosion was inside the bar but it had, in fact, occurred “at or about the entrance door from the porch leading off Great George’s Street”.
However, the story of an IRA own goal ran until 1977 when Robert Campbell was arrested, not for the bombing, but for shooting a Protestant whom he believed was Catholic.
While under arrest he admitted his role in McGurk’s bar. At this stage he was a ‘platoon commander’ in the UVF. He was convicted and sentenced to 20 years, of which he served 16.
Some families have said the circulation of the bomb-in-transit theory was “propaganda” that perverted the course of justice and abased the human rights of innocent civilians. They accused the RUC of briefing John Taylor with false information and asked the Police Ombudsman to investigate.
The Ombudsman has found there was “no evidence that police had discussed promoting such an idea”, but did add that police “let the belief go unchallenged”.
As Robert Campbell was the only person charged in connection with the bombing, some families have also accused the police of not investigating properly. The Ombudsman, however, has said there is no evidence to suggest police did not conduct a thorough investigation.
On the day of the bomb there was a ring of steel around the city following a weekend of IRA bombs. Questions have arisen about how the bombers were able to get to McGurk’s bar undetected with a 50lb device.
This led to allegations of collusion, which the Police Ombudsman has also ruled out.