One evening in December, two couples are chatting in the cozy setting of McGurk’s Bar.
John Irvine, who worked at the post office, and his wife Kathleen, a factory worker, had drunk a pint of Guinness and a glass of orange while they waited for their messages to be ready in the store next door. They chatted with Edward Keenan, who had just retired from his docks job the week before and had gone out with his wife Sarah to buy Christmas boxes for their children.
Of the four, only John Irvine survived; his wife and Mr and Mrs Keenan were among those killed when a Loyalist bomb ravaged the North Belfast pub 50 years ago today. A total of 15 people died; the youngest was a 13-year-old friend of the bar owners, and the oldest a 73-year-old man in a school lollipop.
“My grandmother was interviewed on the BBC with my nanny’s coffin next to him,” says the Irvines’ grandson Ciarán Mac Airt, “and spoke of hearing Mr. and Mrs. Keenan cry out. pain and he felt a kick in his foot, because he was still under the rubble and under a big beam that was stretched over his chest, and he thought it was my nanny, under the rubble.
“He watched the electric current flash between the wires, then he saw the fire under the rubble, because the gas line had also exploded, and it was slowly approaching, then he spoke of a flash of light above. from him and he realized that there was someone above him and that was the emergency services.
The families’ grief, says Mac Airt, was “made worse by lies” spread by the security forces and repeated in the media: the explosion was caused by an IRA bomb that exploded prematurely; a member of the UVF was subsequently convicted of the bombing.
“It has always angered families and continues to this day, a key part of the campaign for the truth was to decriminalize innocent civilians and ensure that the truth is made public.”
Today, he is an author and activist for the McGurk’s Bar families, who continue to press for the release of information and for recognition of collusion and cover-up by security forces.
Earlier this week, they protested outside the offices of the Northern Police Council and last week submitted what they believe to be the very first such complaint to the UK’s Cabinet Office.
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the atrocity, their call is for a full investigation into the bombing which complies with article two of the European Convention on Human Rights “which we have never received for the McGurk’s Bar massacre, ”says Mac Airt.
This, he says, could take several forms. “It could take a new investigation, and we come back to the Attorney General with even more new evidence that I’ve found over the past three years, or it could be a Kenova-style investigation by people like [former English chief constable Jon] Boucher, but it would have to be in accordance with clause two.
Lawsuits related to unrest
Mac Airt’s grandmother was killed before she was born; today he describes his grandfather John, who joined the British Army and fought Nazism in WWII, as his hero.
Fifty years after McGurk’s bar, he condemns the British government’s plans to end all unrest-related prosecutions as an attempt to “bury his war crimes and protect his killers.” And that is to prevent families like ours from having access to due process of law, and that is due process of law enjoyed by UK citizens.
“Our family campaign for truth is a prime example of ordinary people having to campaign for half a century for truth and justice and to do so with dignity and to do so constitutionally, within the parameters of the law.”