On a December evening, two couples chat in the snug of McGurk’s Bar.
John Irvine, who worked in the post office, and his wife Kathleen, a mill worker, had nipped in for a pint of Guinness and a glass of orange while they waited for their messages to be ready in the shop next door. They got talking to Edward Keenan, who had just retired from his job at the docks the week before and had been out with his wife Sarah buying 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 ripped through the north Belfast pub 50 years ago today. In total, 15 people died; the youngest was a 13-year-old friend of the bar owners, and the eldest a 73-year-old school lollipop man.
“My granda was interviewed on the BBC with my nanny’s coffin beside him,” says the Irvines’ grandson Ciarán Mac Airt, “and talked about hearing Mr and Mrs Keenan screaming out in pain and he felt a kick at his foot, because he was still under the rubble and under a big beam that was stretched across his chest, and he believed that was my nanny, underneath the rubble.
“He watched the electrical current flash between wires and then he saw the fire underneath the rubble, because the gas main had exploded as well, and it was creeping closer, and then he talked about a flash of light above him and he realised there was someone above him and it was the emergency services.”
The grief of the families, Mac Airt says, was “compounded by lies” spread by the security forces and repeated in the media – that the explosion had been caused by an IRA bomb which went off prematurely; a member of the UVF was later convicted of the bombing.
“That has always rankled with the families and it rankles to this very day, a key component of the campaign for truth was decriminalising the innocent civilians and ensuring that the truth was put out in the public domain.”
Today he is an author and campaigner for the McGurk’s Bar families, who continue to press for the release of information and for acknowledgement of collusion and cover-up by the security forces.
Earlier this week they protested outside the offices of the North’s Policing Board, and last week submitted what they believe is the first ever complaint of its kind to the UK’s Cabinet Office.
On the 50th anniversary of the atrocity, their call is for a full investigation into the bombing which complies with Article Two of the European Human Rights Convention “which we have never received for the McGurk’s Bar massacre”, says Mac Airt.
This, he says, could take a number of forms. “It could take a new inquest, and we are going back to the Attorney General with even more new evidence that I’ve found over the last three years, or it could be a Kenova-style investigation by the likes of [former English chief constable Jon] Boucher but it would have to be Article Two compliant.”
Mac Airt’s grandmother was killed before he was born; today, he describes his grandfather John, who joined the British army and fought Nazism during the second World War, as his hero.
Fifty years on from McGurk’s Bar, he condemns the UK government’s plans to end all Troubles-related prosecutions as an attempt to “bury its war crimes and to protect its killers. And its to stop families like ours having access to due process of the law, and that’s the due process of the law that citizens in Britain enjoy.
“Our family campaign for truth is a prime example of ordinary people having to campaign for half a century for truth and justice and doing that with dignity and doing it constitutionally as well, within the parameters of the law.”