Published Date: 21.02.2011
A report by the Police Ombudsman's Office has found that while there is no evidence that the RUC assisted those responsible for the UVF bombing of McGurk's Bar in Belfast in 1971, 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 has concluded that while this fell short of collusion it precluded an effective investigation of the atrocity.
15 people died and more than 16 were injured when McGurk's Bar was bombed in 1971.
PDF: Full Public Statement
The Police Ombudsman has also found that 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.
These are among the main findings of the investigation, the details of which are contained in an 80 page Public Statement which has been presented to the families by the Police Ombudsman, Al Hutchinson.
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.
A complaint made by representatives of some of the families of those killed focused on allegations that the RUC colluded in the attack, did not properly investigate it and provided false information to suggest that it was an 'IRA own goal'
The Police Ombudsman's investigation has found no evidence that members of the RUC assisted the passage of the terrorists in getting to or away from McGurk's Bar.
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.
Investigation was not proportionate to the magnitude of the incident.
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.
"The police investigation had a clear predisposition to the erroneous 'own goal' theory. This was perhaps in some way understandable given the extent of IRA bombings and attacks at the time. However, the investigative bias leading to a failure to examine properly evidence and intelligence attributing the bombing to Loyalist paramilitaries undermined both the investigation and any confidence the bereaved families had in obtaining justice," said Mr Hutchinson.
Although police had early but conflicting information about who may have been responsible, they shared with Government their belief that the IRA was responsible for the bomb. The Statement concludes that such briefings were selective and consequently misleading.
"It is entirely appropriate that the Government is kept well informed about critical incidents but it is crucial that such briefings are balanced and accurate. A more rigorous approach to the assessment of and reporting on such a catastrophic loss of life should have been adopted," said Mr Hutchinson.
The Public Statement also records that in the days and weeks following the explosion, media coverage of what happened included reports of police sources saying that the bombing had been an IRA 'own goal'.
Police briefings of IRA own goal theory caused families great distress.
"Inconsistent police briefings, some of which inferred that victims of the bombing were culpable in the atrocity, caused the bereaved families great distress, which has continued for many years," said Mr Hutchinson
Mr. Hutchinson went on to say "Following the 1977 arrest and the 1978 conviction of a Loyalist suspect, the RUC failed to conduct an effective investigation of the information, which it had received in 1976, that the convicted man and other members of the UVF had been responsible for the bombing".
Following the release of the Historical Enquires Team (HET) report on the McGurk's Bar bombing, the then Minister of State for Northern Ireland, Paul Goggins, advised the House of Commons on 14 July 2008 that "...perceptions and preconceived ideas should never have been allowed to cloud the actual evidence..."
Mr. Hutchinson notes that "The inference that victims of the bombings were culpable in the atrocity has caused the bereaved families great distress over the years. A correction by the Chief Constable of this erroneous reporting would be a significant step," said Mr Hutchinson.
Mr. Hutchinson acknowledged that "The police as a body consider that they have been and continue to be the subject of unfair criticism as a consequence of these historic investigations as their actions are being examined up to 40 years after the events and in the absence of complete records or the opportunity for explanation by deceased officers. The police point out that it was a virtually impossible task to investigate effectively the almost 700 murders, which occurred in 1971 and 1972, with significantly fewer resources than they now have and in the midst of a sustained Republican and Loyalist terrorist campaign.
Despite this the police had a duty to investigate such atrocities. It remains my duty to investigate thoroughly complaints about matters of such a grave nature," he said.
Mr. Hutchinson went on to say "The tragedy for families, survivors and police is that the present process of seeking information, truth and justice is fragmented and inadequate."
Mr. Hutchinson concludes that "There must be a better way to deal with these tragic events. I call again on different levels of Government and community to redouble their efforts to find a better way to deal with the past. Until there is a new agreed direction, I will continue to fulfil my mandate within the resources available to me".