Whilst researching the murder of my grandmother, Kathleen Irvine, and 14 other innocent civilians in the McGurk’s Bar bombing in 1971, I came across a gut-wrenching document.
Of all of the buried documents which I have discovered and placed in the public domain, the contents of this particular document left me more deflated than the rest. It was a punch in the stomach.
I am conditioned to reading disinformation from British governmental, police, army and intelligence files regarding my grandmother and the other victims in McGurk’s Bar because it is I who sought and found them. The mountain of black propaganda which blames our innocent family members for the bombing and labelled them the terrorists may be upsetting but I expected no less from these authorities. After all, they created the pretext for the bombing so they were bound to develop it.
The outrageous commentary in this document did distress me though as it allegedly came from the lips of one of our own political representatives – Gerry Fitt.
In a file marked confidential and dated just days before Christmas 1971, I discovered record of a somewhat surreptitious meeting between Gerry Fitt (right), the Leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Reginald Maudling, British Home Secretary.
Assistant Secretary, Home Office
It should be noted that this is record of a reported conversation between the two by one of them and neither is alive to confirm nor deny its contents.
“I had over an hour alone here with Gerry Fitt this morning while his constituent was seeing Mr Howard-Drake (1). I think he welcomed the excuse for being able to come here although he would not wish his visit to be known.”
The SDLP had withdrawn support from Northern Ireland government and begun a campaign of civil disobedience due to the British use of internment against Irish Catholics. Nevertheless, Fitt reportedly told Maudling that he wanted “talks to start but dare not take the initiative unless he is given some excuse for doing so… He believes that the provisionals [sic] do not want the ending of internment. They are getting so much money from sympathisers abroad as a result of internment that even the families of those interned are better off than they would be with the internees released”.
This was an egregious statement regarding hundreds of ordinary families and many (if not most) were his constituents (2). Families were left destitute – some for years – when their main or only breadwinner was interned without trial. Fitt should have known this too as many would have petitioned his help.
Nevertheless, Fitt was concerned about the hearts and minds of his constituents, if Maudling is to be believed, although the methods with which he wished to woo his constituents took a macabre turn. He “deplored the murder of Senator Barnhill” (3) – the Official IRA had killed the Unionist Senator and then blew up his house – but Fitt “did not feel that our propaganda had made nearly enough of the moving and attempted destruction of the Senator’s body”.
“He thought that properly exploited, this aspect could have had a considerable effect on catholic [sic] public opinion.”
If this is a faithful description of the conversation, to talk of the death of any single human being in such terms is bad enough… but then to use the death of fifteen…
Maudling records that Gerry Fitt believed:
“… that the explosion in McGurk’s Bar was the deliberate work of the provisionals [sic] and that if this could be proved it would produce a dramatic effect on catholic [sic] opinion even to the extent of giving him the excuse to join discussions.”
The “facts” that Fitt was supposed to have based his belief that “the explosion was deliberately engineered by the provisionals” included pinning the blame on two of the victims, one of which died:
“The bar was normally used by older men. Among the casualties was one man of 25 (killed) (4) and another of 19 (McCorley or some such name who lost a leg) (5). It was out of the norm for people of this age group to be found in the bar.”
Edward Kane was enjoying a quick pint with his friend Roddy McCorley and 80 year old customer, Mr Griffin, before heading home to his young family.
The main pretext for the bombing being peddled in the press by the RUC, British Army and government was that the McGurk’s Bar bombing was an IRA own-goal. We, of course, have proved that this lie was created by and disseminated by these very state agencies without any evidence whatsoever. Nevertheless, despite even this black propaganda, Gerry Fitt is alleged to have believed that the bomb was not in-transit either:
“No weapons were found by troops and police searching the debris or on any of the killed or injured. Had the explosion been caused accidentally by someone taking refuge in the bar on their way to plant the bomb in a protestant [sic] area they would certainly have been in possession of arms.”
If this is a proper record of what he said, this is agonizing as he criminalized at least two victims with absolutely no evidence whatsoever. Gerry Fitt was no better than the state authorities who sought to criminalize them all, including my own grandmother. All of the victims were his constituents. He knew many of the families personally. He even attended some of the funerals, including Edward Kane’s (as reported in the Irish Times on 8th December 1971). He should have known of the innocence of each and every single one of the victims and survivors in spite of the mountain of disinformation that the state had parroted in the weeks prior to this.
Instead Maudling reported that Gerry Fitt felt:
“… that every effort should be made to pin responsibility for the explosion on the provisionals [sic].”
If that was the case, finding the true culprits meant as little to Gerry Fitt as it did to the RUC, British Army and the governments of Northern Ireland and Britain.
Maudling assured him that the fact that Fitt talked to him “would be strictly confidential” but he recorded the conversation and it was filed in public records where I found it over 42 years later.
“He was particularly anxious that in any communication which might arise from his visit to the authorities in Northern Ireland and in particular to the police that there should be no mention of the views which he had expressed about the explosion in McGurk’s bar. Any indication that he had voiced suspicions of involvement by the provisionals [sic] in this incident would be suicide for him. I gave him an absolute assurance on this point. If it became known that he had visited the Home Office he intended to say only that he had accompanied his constituent who had come to see officials.”
If this conversation occurred as it is recorded, Gerry Fitt did a great disservice to his party and his constituency although he soon fell out of favour with both anyway. The SDLP and our local community have been relentless in their support for our campaign for truth. If we are to place our trust in what a British Home Secretary reported and believe that this is not just another heinous article of British black propaganda, Gerry Fitt was not our voice in parliament, but a snake in the grass. Nevertheless, we may have a better understanding as to why Britain made him a Lord when he no longer had a mandate to represent us.
(1) Assistant Secretary, British Home Office
(2) Fitt was a member of Stormont for the Docks’ area in North Belfast and member of British Parliament for West Belfast. These two densely populated areas were heavily hit by the internment swoops.
(3) Senator Barnhill was killed on 12th December 1971
(4) Edward Kane was 29 but was reported as 25.
(5) Roddy McCorley survived the blast with horrific physical injuries. He carried these along with grave mental scars the rest of his short life.
The file (CJ4 42) is actually marked incorrectly by archive staff as a meeting of Fitt and the British Minister of State. The typed file records “S. of S.” or Secretary of State.
Sir Philip Allen was Permanent Under Secretary at the Home Office, Philip Woodfield (later Sir) was a top civil servant who ran the Northern Ireland office in the Home Office; Jack Howard-Drake was Assistant Secretary in the Home Office.