Blawg: McGurk’s Bar… A Constitutional Crisis

Focal an lae: Blawg (n) A law blog; a blog written by a lawyer or a blog with law-oriented content.

Campaign badge and film title: Loss of Innocence

It was standing room only for our film and Q&A event at St. Mary’s University College which we hosted for Féile an Phobail. Belfast’s premier art and culture festival celebrated its 25th birthday this year.

The film, McGurk’s Bar Bombing: Loss of Innocence, was very well received and after it Claire Hackett from Falls Community Council was the able chair for the discussion. There were many insights and probing questions from the audience and, in the end, we had to be ushered out of the room by organisers as our time had spilled into another event’s.

Myself and another family member of our campaign group, Robert McClenaghan, were joined on the panel by one of Ireland’s foremost human rights lawyers, Niall Murphy, who is a senior partner at KRW Law (formerly Kevin Winters Solicitors). Kevin Winters and the team, of course, are our legal advocates.

It was for good reason that we invited Niall to address the auditorium and his delivery has been lauded by many who have contacted me since. His review of the campaign to date and presentation of the legal landscape we now face was incisive but highly accessible.


Justice Delayed is Justice Denied
Niall Murphy, human rights lawyer, and Briege Voyle, Ballymurphy campaign, at the launch of the book, The McGurk's Bar Bombing
Niall Murphy, human rights lawyer, and Briege Voyle, Ballymurphy campaign, at the launch of the book, The McGurk’s Bar Bombing

Niall told us how inordinate time delays are becoming a feature of legacy cases so there are lessons to be shared and learnt by campaigning families regardless of their background.

Even though these cases are investigated by bodies accorded responsibility for the State’s obligations under Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights, they are failing to meet even basic compliance.

Niall recorded how the McGurk’s Bar campaign for truth has helped to highlight these failures within the likes of the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) and the Office of the Police Ombudsman (OPONI).

It has been a horrific service journey for families who have been campaigning for over four decades:

  • September 2005 Police Ombudsman’s Office begins investigation
  • March 2006 HET begins McGurk’s Bar investigation
  • May 2008 First HET report – failed/retracted
  • April 2010 Second HET report – failed/retracted
  • July 2010 First PONI report – failed/retracted
  • Feb 2011 Second (published) PONI report – central finding denied by Chief Constable

More worryingly, the Chief Constable’s denial of the central findings of the statutory body set up to hold the police to account has, in effect, created a Constitutional Crisis.


The Chief Constable’s Response to the Police Ombudsman’s Report

“The Ombudsman’s report is the latest of a series of historical investigations into this outrage. Other reports have reached differing judgements regarding the initial RUC investigation. None of them have concluded that there was evidence of investigatory bias… In conclusion no investigation is ever closed whilst there remains the possibility of new evidence. Sadly, however, it is my view that there appear to be no further investigative opportunities available.”

Chief Constable Matt Baggott, February 2011

Of course, there were no other completed historical investigation reports prior to the release of the Police Ombudsman’s so the Chief Constable misinformed the public. Now too he has told the families that he has referred the HET report to another unit of PSNI to examine whether there are any investigative opportunities. This is a flip-flop on his three garbled press releases within 24 hours of the Police Ombudsman’s report and, of course, we are still waiting on his HET unit to report two and a half years later (and nearly seven and a half after they began their investigation).

Nevertheless, it does not matter one jot whether there are investigative opportunities as this should not delay the release of a HET report to families anyway. We should study this delay for what it is – continued intransigence and interference by the police.

The ramifications for other campaigning families too are serious as Matt Baggott has refused to accept the central findings of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland regarding the failure of the RUC to mount an investigation proportionate to the magnitude of the crime, and of investigative bias on the part of the RUC.

Niall said:

“We would agree with him that he is required to act impartially in carrying out his role as a Chief Constable, but we have scoured the statute book in vain for any duty to be the final arbiter of a complaint against his own police service or a finding of fault against that service made by the Police Ombudsman. In fact, the final arbiter in such cases is clearly the independent Police Ombudsman.”


Constitutional Crisis

Niall told the audience that Matt Baggott’s absurd rejection has re-traumatized our families and created a constitutional crisis:

Chief among grave legal concerns is Baggott’s refusal to be held to account by the Office of the Police Ombudsman.

Niall was to the point:

“In so doing, he undermines public confidence not only in the Office of the Police Ombudsman, but also in the Police Service of Northern Ireland. We are at a loss to understand why Matt Baggott, who is not from here, was never a member of the RUC, and had nothing to do with the matters complained about, should be so anxious to stand over what was self-evidently very poor policing as long ago as 1971.”

“Also of very great concern is the effect on the victims of the Chief Constable’s rejection of the PONI report. They were heavily traumatised by the bombing itself, and have been re-traumatised by the on-going investigations by the Historical Enquiries Team. Now this.”

So, to court we go.

Many thanks to everyone who took the time to attend our event. It is, as always, very much appreciated. We hope that the young man who was ill during the event is keeping well too. The doctor and audience members who attended to him are to be commended.

Kind regards, Ciarán MacAirt


The McGurk’s Bar Bombing

Collusion, Cover-Up and a Campaign for Truth

By Ciarán MacAirt

Download now from the Amazon Kindle StoreAvailable at Easons | Waterstones | Amazon


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