Contradictory and Sad.
I bought Mac Airts book so at least I could say that I had read it for myself. I started with an open mind as I knew it would centre on the premise that the state forces had started the rumour that the Mc Gurks explosion was an own goal. From the start I need to say that I am sorry that Ciaran never grew up to know his grandmother – like so many others in this ugly mess.
I wish Mc Gurks hadn’t happened nor Enniskillen nor Omagh and the list goes on. However, the more I read the sadder I got as the narrative became clear. Not only would the book centre on the police and their story of what happened but it became a vehicle to bash loyalists, Prods, Brits and just about everybody they could. Most of the scurrilous tittle tattle is aimed at people who are dead and can’t defend themselves. I though Mac Airt in paying homage to his grandmother would have more consideration for those who are slandered after their death? As a loyalist ex prisoner I am not naïve or blind to what the security forces were doing. The RUC executed one of my closest friends. They shot and permanently wounded another and they gave me the normal Ladas Drive welcome – a kicking. Over the years the security forces have killed quite a few loyalists in one way or another.
This article is not about denying the truth. It is obvious that a dirty trick was played in 1971. My article is to redress and contextualise the biased narrative of this construction. I argue that Mr Mac Airt has practised in a very skilful way the very thing he criticises- the art of spin and deception, of insinuation and the dark arts of propaganda. His research and patience is considerable. I have respect for that but a central feature of the book is what is missing. Either through design or neglect.
There are that many contradictions I can’t possibly cover them here but a few will illustrate my points. The first concern is the reliance of the author on others books. One outstanding feature about books on the Troubles is their slants and inaccuracy. Reference is made to the excellent book ‘Lost Lives’. A considerable work, which is often taken as gospel. However on page 383 of the 1999 edition there is reference to a Norman Hutchinson being shot dead by the UDA/UFF. This is untrue. The young man (who I knew) was convicted of manslaughter but was never in the UDA/UFF nor did he serve his time in any of the UDA cages of the time. A small mistake maybe, but significant all the same. My self and friends have noted other inaccuracies. As the thrust of the Mac Airt book is to be aware of inaccurate information then maybe the reader should do well to keep this in mind when reading his narrative.
I felt that the author was going to put the Mc Gurks bombing in some form of context but of course, this being Northern Ireland, there are 3 contexts. Loyalist, Republican and the other. I shall try to put in context why a small group of loyalists decided to act in the way they did. Why the security forces felt the way they did and why Unionists in general had a lot to worry about. In the year 1971 the relatively new PIRA killed the first solider, Gunner Curtis in February, the first RUC had been killed in August the previous year when the IRA also killed two criminals. The IRA killed the first UDR man in August and had killed 5 men of the BBC by mistake in February at Brougher mountain, Co Tyrone. They had sustained a bombing campaign in Belfast city centre and throughout Northern Ireland. They had killed 18 month old Catholic baby (Angela Gallagher)during an attack in west Belfast. ‘One of the hazards of war’ one well known republican said at the time. Or did he?
The IRA this year had bombed a bar in Sandy Row, the Bluebell, where thankfully there were no fatalities but plenty of casualties. They had bombed the 4 Step Inn on the Shankill killing 2 men. They had killed 3 young soldiers, 2 of which were brothers and one was aged 17. What were Prods to think? Unionists were fearful and angry. There had to be a reaction and there was.
As a direct reprisal for Mc Gurks bomb the IRA bombed the Balmoral furniture showroom on the Shankill Road. If the Mc Gurks bomb killed a 13 and 14 year old, then this bomb ended the lives of Tracey Munn, aged 2 and Colin Nicholl, aged 17 months. What of these families? What of the grandparents of these children? I did not see this covered in the book?
The IRA has always maintained there was a war. Well, was this not their declaration of war on the Unionist people? Have a people and any state the right to defend itself? There was a growing and wide spread feeling of hitting back at the IRA. At this point I would say that this is where the futility sets in for me remembering these events and my childhood days. It was a mess for us all. I suspect we could all have done without the Troubles but I admit that the old Northern Ireland state was a pretty poor place to be for many reasons. Once we had stepped into the downward spiral we were all going down, especially those in the poorest areas of Belfast. ( I recall my first house with its outside toilet in the yard. No running warm water, no bathroom, cooking by gas and huddling around a single bar electric fire when the coal fire wasn’t lit.)
Let me be unequivocal and clear here. I hope, argue and pray that young loyalists never go down the road of killing innocent people ever again. I have renounced the use of violence and will argue against violence as being counterproductive. If Prods want to do something; get educated and learn to argue their case rather than strike out at innocent people.
I accept the pain and suffering of the people involved in the pub that night but I think this book does not serve them well as it comes over so bitter and self-serving. There was a vicious slur on Gusty on page 63. Who said this and when? Any evidence? Or just ‘hear say’ against a dead man? Was it included in accordance with dirty tricks department against which Mac Airt rails so strongly?
There are a couple of puzzling statements and minor points which make me question what truth he really is seeking to highlight so brightly? He mentions, quite often, the young witness to the bomb attack. The young lad is quoted as seeing a small union jack in the bombers car? This in the pitch dark of a December night? I recall the lighting of Belfast in those days. I even remember the gas man coming round with a wee ladder to light up the gas street lights. Was the kids eyesight that good and did Prods really have car stickers like that in 1971?
The author says that Trevor King was a spy or agent? If so, why was he let serve out a full term of not one but three full prison sentences in the Kesh? Indeed in 1972 he was sentenced only after a third trial under the old jury system. Hardly preferential treatment for an informer. A spy on the inside is useless to the forces on the outside. But most implausible of all for me is the idea that a Prod with a visible UVF badge would walk into North Belfast AFTER the bombing to make a call and then quite conveniently leave a note about his call. (P.164) For those who know the ways of Belfast where a man, with a UVF badge, feels happy enough to walk is most likely a place where a young Catholic would not walk and vice versa. So after all the detail and research by the author we are left with the vague, but huge area, of ‘somewhere in north Belfast’. This bit of evidence ( a note, which disappeared later) just happens to fit the Mac Airt narrative very nicely. This is where credibility gets off and I am left wondering about the rest of his argument.
The narrative of the book overall is that all things Prod and Brit are bad while all things Republican and nationalist are good. Catholics suffer state oppression while ignoring the mass misery and suffering the IRA caused too many innocent people. Kincora is used again to highlight the dirty dogs of the Brits and loyalists. Not a word about the shameful exploits of certain priests over the years against the most vulnerable of people in their midst and care. Yes I believe that dirty tricks and cover ups occurred. None more so, than when a priest in accused of being involved in mass murder and is let escape justice to the Republic. In this case I believe that political pressure was brought to bear. Should Prods start a campaign for truth here? Father James Chesney has been implicated in the Claudy bombing of July 1972. For the record, of the 9 dead, one was a girl of 9, Kathryn Eakin and a boy of 16, William Temple. Both innocent Prods. Sadly a young Catholic boy, an innocent, pat Connelly, aged 15,would die later of his wounds. And the irony of this is that the IRA deny any part in the bombing let alone apologise. What closure for these families?
In the book is supposition. On p.117, “it could be” and on p.118, “I would contend” which sort of leaves anything open to his imagination. On page 166 (paragraph 2) he says “ I believe.” Fair enough, but enough people on this planet say they believe in UFOs and that Elvis isn’t dead. It doesn’t make it true to the rest of us. Insinuation comes in the form of dropping Billy Mitchell’s name in the frame. Not one supporting iota of evidence to say he was involved in Mc Gurks yet his name is in there. Guess work and innuendo? Part of a dirty tricks agenda? Jackson and Hannas names are threw in. Nearly every Loyalist is a spy or agent. No discussion of the spies and agents within the Republican ranks such as Donaldson and Scappaticci.
It was with some incredulity that I read on page 196 of the sneaky Brits killing and burying a young Alexander Rubowitz in what is present day Israel. Amazing to think that he bashes the British Army and yet has little to say about the likes of Jean Mc Conville ( a Roman Catholic mother of 9 children) and all the others that are still missing. Hypocrisy.
Finally a note on the duplicity of Mac Airts position. He is aggrieved at the lies and cover up. People are not being honest. On page 174 the author says he, “..engaged with a leading Republican who would have been an active officer in the local IRA..” (my emphasis). As well as taking what he says as the ‘truth’ he’s talking with a man who helped create the murder mile, which he refers to earlier, on the Antrim Road. Would Mc Airt share the name of this man in public? Would he make all his discussion and notes (if any) available if requested by relatives of dead IRA victims? Something tells me that the author would hand nothing over to the security forces?
As I said earlier I am left feeling sad with this book. It is a well-researched factual description in some places, which overlies guesswork and plain old sectarianism in other places. We have all been guilty of shameful things, loyalists, republicans and security forces. All our loss and suffering is equally painful to those left. Does this book help the peace process? As someone who lived through the troubles, was affected by the troubles, spent time in the Kesh and also engaged in debate with republicans I do not see this book helping to repair the relationships that need to be repaired. I hope Ciaran gets closure but more so I hope the rest of us, every one, also get a chance at closure and the opportunity to look forward, with hope, rather than looking back in bitterness.