On 4 December 1971, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a loyalist paramilitary group, exploded a bomb at McGurk’s Bar in Belfast. The pub was frequented by members of the Irish Catholic and nationalist community. The explosion caused the building to collapse, killing fifteen Catholic civilians and wounding seventeen more. It was the highest death toll from a single incident in Belfast during the Troubles.
Despite evidence to the contrary, the security forces publicised the theory that a bomb had accidentally exploded while being handled by IRA members inside the pub; implying that the victims themselves were partly to blame. A report later found that the police were biased in favour of this view, and that this hindered their investigation. In 1977, UVF member Robert Campbell was sentenced to life imprisonment for his part in the bombing.
McGurk’s (also called Tramore Bar) was a two-storey public house on the corner of North Queen Street and Great George’s Street, in the New Lodge area to the north of Belfast city centre. This was a mainly Irish nationalist and Catholic area, and the pub’s regular customers were from that community.
The Ulster Volunteer Force formed in Belfast in 1966, declaring war on the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and anyone helping it. Until 1971, however, its actions were few and it “scarcely existed in an organisational sense”. The British Army was deployed in Northern Ireland during the August 1969 riots, which are usually seen as the start of the Troubles. In December 1969 the IRA split, giving rise to the establishment of the rival Official IRA and Provisional IRA. Both sides then launched armed campaigns against the British Army, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the government of Northern Ireland.
During 1971, the violence gradually worsened. There were daily bombings and shootings by republicans, loyalists and the security forces. During the first two weeks of December, there were about 70 bombings and about 30 people were killed. On 2 December, three republican prisoners escaped from Crumlin Road gaol, not far from McGurk’s. Security was tightened and there was heavy RUC and British Army presence in the area over the next two days. Eyewitnesses asserted that the checkpoints around McGurk’s were removed just an hour before the attack.
On the evening of Saturday 4 December 1971, a three-man UVF team met in a building near the Shankill Road and were ordered to bomb a pub on North Queen Street. They were told not to return until the job was done. When being interviewed by police about the bombing, Robert Campbell said that their target had not been McGurk’s, but another pub nearby. It is believed that their target was a pub called “The Gem”, which was allegedly linked to the Official IRA. The bomb (disguised as a brown parcel) was placed in a car, which they then drove to their target. They stopped outside the pub at about 7:30pm, but allegedly couldn’t gain access to it. After waiting for almost an hour, they drove a short distance to McGurk’s. At about 8:45pm one of them placed the bomb in the porch entrance on Great George’s Street and rushed back to the car. It exploded just moments after they drove off. Campbell implied that McGurk’s had been an arbitrary target. It has been argued that McGurk’s was chosen only because it was “the nearest Catholic pub”.
The blast caused the building to collapse. Bystanders immediately rushed to free the dead and wounded from the rubble. Firefighters, paramedics, police and soldiers were quickly on the scene. Fifteen Catholic civilians had been killed and another seventeen wounded.
Within two hours of the blast, a sectarian clash had erupted nearby at the New Lodge–Tiger’s Bay interface. The British Army and RUC moved in and a gun battle developed. An Army officer, Major Jeremy Snow, was shot by the IRA on New Lodge Road and died of his wounds on 8 December. Two RUC officers and five civilians were also wounded by gunfire. Eventually, five companies of troops were sent into the district and they searched almost 50 houses.
Meanwhile, the UVF team had driven to a nearby pickup point where they dumped their car and waited to be collected by another car. However, the car drove past them, so they walked to the area of St Anne’s Cathedral and were picked up by another one. They were driven back to the Shankill and met the man who had ordered the attack in an Orange hall, telling him that “the job has been done”.
Philomena and Maria McGurk, wife and 12-year-old daughter of the landlord, Patrick McGurk, were among those who were killed; Patrick and his three sons were seriously injured. Shortly after the attack, McGurk appeared on television calling for no retaliation: “It doesn’t matter who planted the bomb. What’s done can’t be undone. I’ve been trying to keep bitterness out of it.”
After the bombing, there were conflicting theories about who was responsible and these were spread via the media. The main theories were:
that it had been planted by loyalists;
that it had exploded prematurely while being prepared by republicans inside the pub;
that it had exploded prematurely while “in transit”, an IRA member having left it at the pub to be collected by another IRA member; and
that it had been planted as part of a feud between the Provisional IRA and Official IRA.
The second and third were known as the “own goal” theory. Claims that the pub was associated with the IRA were denied by survivors and relatives. A British Military Intelligence (MI) summary covering the period 1–7 Dec 1971 also said that the pub was not known to be an IRA meeting place. On Monday 6 December, both wings of the IRA condemned the attack, denied responsibility and blamed the UVF and security forces.
Claims of responsibility:
That same day, several newspapers received phone calls from someone claiming to be a spokesman for the “Empire Loyalists”. Their statement to the Belfast Telegraph was:
We [the Empire Loyalists] accept responsibility for the destruction of McGurk’s pub. We placed 30lb of new explosives outside the pub because we had proved beyond doubt that meetings of IRA Provisionals and Officials were held there.
The “Empire Loyalists” had made only one other claim of responsibility – that was for the bombing of Colin Youth & Community Centre in Belfast on 12 November 1971. The RUC, however, had no intelligence about such a group. On Tuesday 7 December, a youth claimed to have seen a man acting oddly at a phone kiosk the night before. He said the man was wearing a jacket with a UVF badge on it. The youth claimed to have checked the kiosk after the man left and found a torn bit of paper. When put together, it included the lines:
We the Empire Loyalists wish to state that we did not destroy McGurk’s public house as an act of retaliation … Furthermore we do not require the forensic experts of the Army to cover up for us … We shall not issue any further statements until we exterminate another rebel stronghold.
In the days following the bombing, the RUC received a letter signed by “Chief of Staff, UVF” claiming that the UVF bombed the pub because an IRA meeting was due to take place there. It said that two UVF members entered the pub, had a drink and asked the barman to mind a package while they “ran an errand”. Witnesses told the RUC, however, that there had been no strangers in the pub and that nobody had left a package. Three other unsigned letters were sent to the RUC. They suggested that it was an IRA bomb “in transit” and that two “Provos” were killed.
Location of the bomb:
For the RUC, the location of the bomb (whether it exploded inside or outside) became the key to finding who was responsible. However, investigators (both RUC and Army) were unsure and gave conflicting opinions.
RUC duty officers’ reports were made daily. Their purpose was to brief the Chief Constable and others at HQ about events that happened during the foregoing 24 hours. The reports were also made available to the Army’s General Officer Commanding for Northern Ireland. The 4–5 December 1971 report said of the bombing: “Just before the explosion a man entered the licensed premises and left down a suitcase, presumably to be picked up by a known member of the IRA. The bomb was intended for use on other premises. Before the ‘pick-up’ was made the bomb exploded…”
On 6 December, however, the RUC spoke to an 8-year-old who witnessed the blast. He said that he saw three men in a car that had “a wee Union Jack stuck in the back window”. He said that one of the men left a parcel in the Great George’s Street doorway and then ran back to the car. A man and a woman backed up his story, although they did not witness as much as the boy.
Despite this, the security forces and the Government stood behind the “own goal” theory. A British Military Intelligence summary covering the period 8–15 December said: “It has been confirmed that it was a [Provisional IRA] bomb which was destined for another target, but exploded prematurely.” A Ministry of Defence (MOD) document dated 14 December said that that this “should be publicised”. On 23 December, the Army sent a letter (signed by a lieutenant colonel) to people living in north Belfast. It said that when the IRA in the area is destroyed, “we can look forward to…a period in which you will not lose your friends in a repetition of the ‘Provos’ accident in the McGurk’s bar.”
Arrest and conviction of Robert Campbell:
In November 1975, the RUC received intelligence that a man called Robert Campbell was a high-ranking UVF member. They began enquiries to find where he lived. In March 1976, the RUC received further intelligence that linked Campbell and four others to the McGurk’s bombing. Campbell was arrested on 27 July 1977 and held at Castlereagh RUC base. He was interviewed seven times during 27 and 28 July. He admitted his part in the bombing but refused to name the others.
On 29 July 1977, Campbell was charged with the 15 murders and 17 attempted murders. On 6 September 1978 he pleaded guilty to all charges and received life imprisonment with “a recommendation to serve no less than 20 years”. He is the only person to have been charged for the bombing.
Collusion claims and Police Ombudsman’s investigation:
The victims’ relatives campaigned for an independent investigation of the bombing. They believed that the RUC’s investigation was flawed from the outset. Moreover, they wished to disprove the claim that the victims were IRA members killed by their own bomb (the “own goal theory”). Even after Campbell’s conviction, the “own goal” theory remained officially unchallenged. Relatives argued that this theory was promoted as part of a “government policy to avoid publicly acknowledging the loyalist campaign of violence”. Another argument is that it was promoted to undermine the IRA’s support and stir tension between the two IRA factions.
Relatives also asked how the bombers were able to plant the bomb and flee despite the tight security. Some alleged that the security forces helped the bombers by removing checkpoints. The 2009 book Killing For Britain, written by former UVF member ‘John Black’, claimed that a British undercover unit called the Military Reaction Force or Military Reconnaissance Force (MRF) organized the bombing and helped the bombers get in and out of the area. The bombers’ original target, The Gem, was allegedly linked to the Official IRA. It has been claimed that the MRF ordered the team to bomb The Gem and make it look like a Provisional IRA attack. The plan was allegedly to start a feud between the two IRA factions, which would distract them from their fight against the security forces and drain their support. However, as The Gem had security outside, they bombed the nearest ‘Catholic pub’.
On 21 February 2011, the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland published a report about the bombing and the RUC’s investigation of it. The report said that there is no evidence that the RUC helped the UVF bombers. However, it found that the RUC investigation was biased in favour of the view that the IRA was responsible. It failed to give enough thought to the possible involvement of loyalists. This bias hindered the investigation. The report also found that RUC gave “selective” and “misleading” briefings to the Government and media, which furthered the idea that it was an IRA bomb. The Ombudsman has not found an explanation why successive Chief Constables have not addressed this mistake. Ombudsman Al Hutchinson said: “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”.
In 2001 a memorial was unveiled on the site of McGurk’s bar to mark the 30th anniversary of the bombing. Relatives of the victims called for an investigation into allegations of crown-force collusion in the bomb attack. Almost a thousand people attended a service at St Patrick’s Church on Donegall Street, after which fifteen wreaths, one for each victim, were carried by relatives leading a silent candlelit procession to a new memorial at Great George’s Street.
Patrick McGurk died on 15 December 2007, having forgiven those responsible for the explosion and having prayed for the men who carried out the attack.
Photo: Memorial on Great George’s Street