"Forgotten" victims of 1974 blasts fight on for justice amid claims of British involvement
Monday February 26, 2001
While dramatic stories of an army lethally out of control tumble out of the public inquiry into Bloody Sunday in Derry, a parallel investigation into a potentially more controversial event is being conducted in Dublin behind closed doors.
The four car bombs which exploded in Dublin and Monaghan in May 1974, taking the lives of 33 people and wounding more than 200, constituted the worst single massacre of the entire Irish Troubles. Because of its long obscurity in the British and Irish public consciousness, the families of the victims and wounded called themselves the Justice for the Forgotten campaign.
It is alleged that the principal perpetrators, members of the Ulster Volunteer Force from Portadown, were aided and abetted by members of the British security services and that the Garda's initially promising investigation - it had the names of 20 suspects within weeks - was frustrated by the RUC.
At least three of the bombing team, all now dead, have been identified as paid informers.
After years of obfuscation and resistance, the Irish government finally gave in to pressure from the families and a commission of inquiry was set up in January last year under the retiring chief justice Liam Hamilton.
His work was expected to take nine months but last October he became ill and he died a month later. The inquiry is now being quietly conducted by the retired supreme court judge Henry Barron. Three weeks ago he slipped over to Southend-on-Sea, in Essex, to interview a former military intelligence officer who has evidence of British collusion with the loyalist paramilitaries involved.
Another former intelligence officer he has contacted told the Guardian: "He has a healthy streak of independence and he seems pretty convinced that the bombers were assisted from the outside."
The Northern Ireland Office and Adam Ingram, the security minister, have promised to cooperate "as positively as possible".
But it remains to be seen whether the British army, the RUC and, crucially, MI5 are prepared to open their files from what was one of the murkiest periods of the conflict. The Forgotten campaigners are acutely aware that British ministers, despite personal representations from the Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, may invoke the Official Secrets Act and issue public interest immunity certificates to conceal the evidence.
Judge Barron's fact-finding report, however, will eventually see the light of day. In a compromise made possible by the Irish constitution, it will be delivered to the Irish parliament's joint committee on justice, equality and women's rights. The committee then plans to hold public, televised hearings to decide whether to recommend a full public inquiry.
"You have always got to be a bit cynical because it's been going on for years," says Margaret Urwin, the campaign's secretary. "We have to put our faith in Judge Barron."
On the morning of May 17 1974, two cars were hijacked in loyalist areas of Belfast and a third was stolen. A fourth was taken from a car park in Portadown. In the late afternoon, during Dublin's Friday rush-hour, the three from Belfast exploded without warning in the city centre within 90 seconds of each other. The Monaghan bomb went off 1 hours later. No one claimed responsibility. There have been no prosecutions.
Harrowing accounts of the carnage have been brought together in a book by the human rights activist and writer Don Mullan, whose previous work on Bloody Sunday influenced the British government's decision to set up the Saville inquiry.
Derek Byrne, 14, was working as a petrol pump attendant in Parnell Street, Dublin, when the first bomb went off. He appeared so badly injured that he was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. "It was a very scary thing to wake up in the morgue," he recalls.
"I was just lying on the table. It was full of bodies. I just let out a scream. The mortuary attendant then let out a scream." He spent the next 19 hours in the operating theatre.
"I could never understand why no one was held responsible for the terrible atrocity," said Bernie O'Hanlon, then a 16-year-old shop assistant whose badly scarred right eye finally had to be removed three years ago. "The Irish government should leave no stone unturned until it finds the truth and justice we deserve. Then and only then can we heal."
The explosions happened at a time of intense political crisis. Two days earlier the Ulster Workers Council strike against the Sunningdale power-sharing agreement had begun to paralyse Northern Ireland and the new Labour government of Harold Wilson.
Among hardline unionists, with support from elements in the army and MI5, it was feared that the Wilson administration was about to go soft on the republic. There was also a fierce turf war in the intelligence community between MI5, which was determined to prosecute the war against the IRA, and the secret intelligence service, MI6, which realised that only a political solution could end the violence.
Suspicions of British collusion were immediately raised because of the technical precision needed for the attacks, and it is now accepted that covert army units ran loyalist assassins in the north. But it took nearly 20 years before some light was shed on the bombings.
In 1993, after a 2-year investigation, Yorkshire TV's First Tuesday broadcast Hidden Hand: the Forgotten Massacre. Given unprecedented access to Garda files and personnel, the programme made the following assertions:
• Witnesses were able to identify eight suspects, including two of the drivers.
• Within weeks both the Garda and the RUC had a list of 20 suspects, all from the UVF.
• The Garda was not allowed to interview suspects in Northern Ireland and its investigation was wound down after three months. The Irish government remained indifferent.
• British military intelligence, which had infiltrated the UVF in Portadown, was willing to allow the outlawed organisation to carry out terrorist acts.
Nearly two years later the Irish department of justice said the Garda had no new evidence that would enable anyone to be charged. Since then there have been further allegations about the botched Garda forensic investigation and links between senior Gardai and British intelligence officers. A former sergeant in the RUC, John Weir, convicted of a loyalist murder in 1980, has claimed that the explosives were provided by an Ulster Defence Regiment captain and assembled on the Amagh farm of an RUC officer. The first breakthrough for the families came with the Good Friday agreement and the establishment of a victims commissioner in 1998. Commissioner John Wilson caused an uproar when he recommended in August 1999 that an inquiry into the bombings be held entirely in private.
"We were thrown into a quandary," a senior Dublin official told the Guardian. "Because the matter involved two jurisdictions we were afraid that we would not have full control over a public inquiry." But at the suggestion of the Irish Labour party, the compromise of a judicial fact-finding report followed by public hearings before the joint committee was agreed.
Judge Barron is navigating turbulent and murky waters but the families of the dead remain determined to get at the truth. Martha O'Neill, who lost her husband, Edward, says: "I want to see justice before I die. I really, really do."
The Dublin & Monaghan Bombings. Don Mullan, Wolfhound Press, Dublin.