The McGurk’s Bar Massacre: Another Cover-up Raises Questions about Dealing with the Past

The latest example of how Northern Ireland’s troubled past just won’t go away are revelations released today that Stormont Prime Minister Brian Faulkner – in the words of the Irish News headline – ‘helped cover up truth of bar bombing.’ The bar bombing in question is the notorious McGurk’s case, which claimed the lives of 15 people.

The evidence for a cover-up is based on documents accessed by the Pat Finucane Centre and publicised by the Campaign for Truth pressure group.

The most damning information released is what Faulkner told British home secretary Reginald Maudling. It’s summarised by the Irish News this way:

He told Maudling that the British army believed the bomb had exploded on the ground floor of the bar – information he would have known at the time was inaccurate. … Faulkner said intelligence pointed to the ‘strong likelihood that the bomb was carried out by the IRA rather than Protestant extremists.’ … He had also asked the RUC to dig up any information it could on the bombing victims in order to connect them with republicans.

Of course, we know now that the bomb was not an IRA ‘own goal’ and that those who died had no links with violent republicanism.

I’m never really surprised when post-conflict investigations start implicating people at the highest level of political authority in dirty dealings.

Disparate, piece-meal investigations of particular cases during the Troubles will continue to throw up unflattering information like this, revealing more uncomfortable facts about what leaders on all sides did and did not do.

Such revelations can be sensational, but they don’t really get to the heart of ‘dealing with the past.’

Right now it is in large part up to groups such as Campaign for Truth to pursue their individual cases, painstakingly working to bring such information into the public domain.

There are many commendable groups and projects in Northern Ireland engaged in similar work. These groups have their own agendas and political perspectives and they don’t agree about how Northern Ireland should ‘deal with’ its past.

But what I think is important is that such people have their suffering acknowledged and publicly recognised – both by political authorities who can somehow represent those who held power at the time and by people in the wider society from all points on the political spectrum.

The desire for acknowledgement seems to me to be a natural, healthy and legitimate one. It is necessary for the healing of individuals and has the potential to encourage empathy among previously conflicting communities.

One of the advantages of some sort of ‘official’ truth and reconciliation process is that it can command the resources and the publicity necessary for there to be a widespread public acknowledgement of suffering and injustice.

In the absence of an official process, the most that stories like this may do is to bring victims and survivors some fleeting vindication. This is important, but it is no substitute for dealing with the past in a systematic and sensitive way.

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