Mull of Kintyre helicopter crash: Why only a formal apology and fresh investigation can begin to assuage this wrong
The cream of RUC Special Branch and MI5 was killed in the Mull of Kintyre helicopter crash 20 years ago this week. But the lasting injustice has been that done to the two pilots, says Henry McDonald.
Dressed in a sombre dark suit, red tie and wire-rimmed glasses, the man was reading a copy of The Daily Telegraph just a few feet away from where one of the founders of the Irish Republican Socialist Party, my late cousin/co-author Jack Holland, and myself were sitting down to a pot of tea.
From time to time as we chatted inside a long-since-closed cafe in the old Central Arcade complex in downtown Belfast, I noticed that this man, who appeared to be in his late fifties or early sixties, would peer out over the broadsheet and look in our direction. It was one Saturday morning early in 1994, possibly February, and we were under surveillance.
The anti-terrorist officer who put one of his "spotters" in place that day to watch over us would be dead within a few months. He was Superintendent Ian Phoenix, one of 29 killed when an RAF Chinook helicopter crashed into the Mull of Kintyre 20 years ago this week.
Jack and I never knew, until after Phoenix's death, that he had had us tailed as we went about interviewing and meeting with serving and former members of the IRSP and its volatile military wing, the Irish National Liberation Army.
It was only after the RUC veteran was buried that we were told that he was so concerned about our safety that he had ordered that we be followed to certain locations. Ironically, Phoenix and the man in the suit reading The Daily Telegraph need not have worried that morning.
Our contact/source had been a friendly one who was open and willing to talk about the meandering and blood-splattered history of the INLA/IRSP. Others, of course, were not so co-operative or helpful, and even threatened to "stop this book" that we were researching and writing at the time.
My co-author on INLA: Deadly Divisions had known Phoenix and his formidable wife Susan for the preceding two years, after the couple rented the Holland family's holiday home in Trevignano, north of Rome.
Phoenix was certainly aware of who Jack was, but I can state with absolute certainty that my fellow writer and cousin did not know the true profession of his tenant; the truth about who he actually was only conveyed by a bitter twist of fate by myself when I reported on the Mull of Kintyre crash for BBC Northern Ireland that morning in a televised report that included the names of the RUC Special Branch officers who had been killed in the accident.
Aside from the indirect personal connection to one of the crash victims, the other piece of detail that lodges in the memory was the sight of something civilian and "normal" amid the military debris and the detritus of the doomed Chinook.
They were the set of golf clubs some of those on the flight had taken on board as they left on the flight from RAF Aldergrove to Fort George in Scotland. Some among the elite intelligence officers that also included a number of top MI5 operatives were going to get a round of golf in between conferences to discuss the security situation back in Northern Ireland.
Jack and I later learned that item number one on the agenda of their conference was a discussion on how the loyalist paramilitary groups would react to the expected Provisional IRA ceasefire.
Conspiracy theories from the right, preceding the wilder conspiracies of the 9/11 'Truthers', have tried to suggest that the crash was deliberate; that the Government somehow needed to weed out a number of hardline securocrats in the intelligence community who were opposed to doing a peace deal with the IRA.
In fact, many of those who lost their lives, including Ian Phoenix, were already convinced that the IRA was serious about its ceasefire and that, in the end, in spite of many bumps along the road, there was nowhere for the republican movement to go but to reverse out of the 'armed struggle' cul de sac.
Phoenix himself had even expressed a view that, in the long-term, a united Ireland was probably inevitable, and he was wholly relaxed about that prospect.
The real scandal of RAF Chinook ZD576 was that, for 17 years, the two pilots who took off from Aldergrove were blamed for the tragedy.
For nearly two decades the families of Flight Lieutenant Jonathan Tapper and Flight Lieutenant Richard Cook had to fight to clear them of blame.
Only in 2011, after a report by Lord Phillip into the accident, were the charges against the two pilots, who had nearly 5,000 hours of flying time between them, posthumously lifted. The pilots' families and those of the intelligence officers on board – including Susan Phoenix and her children – have always insisted the real reason for the disaster was that the helicopter was not airworthy.
Twenty years later, it is about time that David Cameron and the Ministry of Defence issued an apology to those pilots and initiate a new investigation into why this aircraft was given the go-ahead for its doomed final flight.