Ombudsman’s Report into McGurk’s Bar

The report into the McGurk’s bar bombing has finally come out. It did come out previously when Al Hutchinson published his report to a storm of protest from the families. Hutchinson then promptly withdrew the report though bizarrely denied it was embarrassing: “I wouldn’t say it’s an embarrassment, I take it as a learning opportunity – we must do better.”

The new mark two report is now out (full report PDF here) and seems somewhat more to the families’ liking.

The basic facts seem no longer is doubt:

The bomb at McGurk’s Bar in Great George’s Street, Belfast, exploded on the evening of Saturday 4 December 1971, killing 15 people and injuring more than 16 others.
During the days which followed, the media carried speculation as to which terrorist group was responsible, including information attributed to police sources.
The issues the Ombudsman’s Report highlights include:

The police investigation had such a predisposition towards the view that the IRA were responsible for the bomb that this became an investigative bias.

The report continues:

The police gave selective briefings to the Government and to the media that Republican paramilitaries were responsible.

The Police Ombudsman has not found an explanation why successive Chief Constables have not addressed this erroneous perception.

The Ombudsman goes on to contextualise these failings:

The Police Ombudsman has acknowledged that the prevailing situation in Northern Ireland at the time presented significant challenges to policing. In particular he has recognised that for police officers and other emergency services to come under sustained gun attack in the vicinity of the bombing, which left one man dead and others injured, frustrated the initial work of the police.
However, he has concluded that the RUC investigation was not proportionate to the magnitude of the incident, which was one of the biggest losses of life during any incident of ‘The Troubles’ until the bombing of Omagh in 1998.
The Police Ombudsman’s investigation has established that the initial intelligence and information, which police received, presented them with a confusing picture as to who had carried out the attack. It has found that in the following weeks, despite emerging evidence supporting the alternative theory, the RUC became unduly influenced by information, which suggested that Republican paramilitaries had been responsible. It has concluded that police failed to give adequate consideration to the possible involvement of Loyalist paramilitaries.

He also found that:

There is no evidence that the RUC assisted those responsible for the UVF bombing of McGurk’s Bar in Belfast in 1971.

The report has concluded that while this fell short of collusion it precluded an effective investigation of the atrocity.

Some of the families seem satisfied by the outcome whereas others still seem to see collusion.

The Pat Finucane Centre and British Irish Watch have attacked PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott’s response:

“Mr Baggott’s statement falls very far short of the apology which the families deserve and which the circumstances demand,” they said in a statement.
“It also fails to fulfill the Ombudsman’s recommendation that he make a statement “to acknowledge the enduring pain caused to the families by the actions of police following the atrocity”.

The Finucane Centre has a point here. Clearly Baggott was not the leader of the RUC at the time and quite clearly there were circumstances which helped explain the RUC’s failure. They explain but do not excuse what was a significant and unacceptable failure for the RUC to do its duty. Baggott frequently displays a wish to move away from the events of the past. However, on this issue it is only right and proper that Baggott issue an apology.

The Finucane Centre’s response is, however, only one of the avenues of criticism which Baggott’s response could reasonably elicit. Baggott stated:


“It is my view that there appear to be no further investigative opportunities available.”
“At present all lines of inquiry have been exhausted but we will discuss any future opportunities with the Ombudsman,”

Only one person has ever been convicted of this, one of the worst acts of mass murder in recent British history. This individual only drove the getaway car and hence, whilst guilty clearly did not act alone. That Matt Baggott announces that there is nothing left to investigate is actually completely unacceptable. Quite clearly a number of persons must have conspired together to plan these murders, assemble the bomb, transport it to the public house, place it inside the building and yet only the getaway driver has been apprehended. For Baggott to dismiss the possibility of catching the rest of the murderers is a major dereliction of duty on his behalf.

There is no statute of limitation in this country; these murders were only forty years ago and hence, unless all the conspirators were aged over 40 (which is highly unlikely) it is almost inconceivable that they are all dead. Even if all of them were dead it would be reasonable for the police to identify those they feel most likely to have been responsible. Recently the police in England have identified the now deceased murderer of a young woman in Lancashire. The police officer in the BBC clip specifically stated “It has been the longest running murder enquiry in the Lancashire constabulary.” Quite clearly the Lancashire constabulary regard an unsolved murder as an open case. Matt Baggott needs to apply the same thoroughness and professionalism which the Lancashire force are clearly willing to. Closer to home in the recent past the PSNI have named Father Cheasney as one of the Claudy murderers: as such there is a clear precedent for naming any deceased persons thought likely to have committed this horrific mass murder.

Matt Baggott now needs to name those deceased whom the police think committed this loathsome sectarian murder or if all the perpetrators are not dead (much the most likely scenario) the police need to start devoting significant resources to catching those who committed this mass murder. Saying it was forty years ago and so does not matter is completely unacceptable: catching criminals is a major part of Matt Baggott’s job. The Policing Board need to hold him to account over this and if Baggott is unwilling to perform the function of ensuring the resources needed to catch the murderers are made available then he is not up to the job and should be replaced. The rule of law has not been abandoned in this part of the United Kingdom and it is about time it was made clear to Baggott that that means he needs to show significantly more interest in the crimes of the past. The McGurk’s Bar massacre would be a good place to start.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.

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