A New Law Unites Northern Ireland — in Outrage

Robert McClenaghan was 13 years old, lying on a bunk bed at home in west Belfast, when he heard the bomb that killed his grandfather. It was Dec. 4, 1971, and a 50-pound bomb had detonated three miles away at McGurk’s Bar, killing 15 people, all of them Catholics.

The McClenaghans didn’t learn that a family member was among the dead until the following day, when Robert’s father and uncle went to the morgue to identify a body. It turned out to be little more than singed rags and unrecognizable bits of bone and flesh.

“A key fell off the gurney,” McClenaghan recalled, “and my father drove to my grandmother’s home and put it in the keyhole. When it opened the door, we knew that my grandfather was gone.”

The McGurk’s Bar Massacre was the most lethal event in Belfast in the history of the Troubles, a 30-year stretch of sectarian violence that shredded daily life in Northern Ireland, pitting Catholics against Protestants. The episode devastated the McClenaghans and set Robert on a radicalized path that eventually led to 12 years in prison for planting bombs of his own, as a member of the Irish Republican Army, the Catholic paramilitary.

Much of his rage as a boy stemmed from the British government’s insistence that the McGurk’s bomb had been built by the I.R.A. and set off by accident — an “own goal,” as the police told the public and British politicians. None of the victims’ relatives believed that, and in 1978, a member of a Protestant paramilitary was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the killings.

Robert McClenaghan at his home in Belfast. He was 13 when he heard the bomb detonated at McGurk’s Bar that killed his grandfather.Credit…Rob Stothard for The New York Times

At least three others took part in the McGurk’s Bar Massacre, according to witness statements given to the authorities. Now it is all but certain that they will never be prosecuted.

Last month, the House of Commons in London passed what is officially titled the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill. It will slam shut the legal system for Troubles-related cases that have not been resolved by next May 1, ending all inquests, civil actions and cold-case reviews. Every matter will be redirected to a yet-to-be-created entity called the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery.

All the political parties in Northern Ireland have vehemently denounced the plan. They argue that the conclusions of a commission will never have the heft and history-altering impact of a judicial verdict. And many are galled that the law will provide conditional immunity to perpetrators who step forward and offer self-incriminating evidence, no matter how terrible their crimes. As victims’ rights groups put it, the law means that people will get away with murder — on both sides of the conflict.

There are 1,800 unsolved Troubles-related deaths in Northern Ireland, says Cheryl Lawther of the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast, including 1,400 pending police investigations.

“It’s ironic,” she said. “In Northern Ireland we argue about everything, and everything is divided along political lines of the conflict. Except the Legacy and Reconciliation Bill. It is the one thing that has finally united everybody, because everybody hates it.”

To Britain’s governing Conservative Party, which championed this legislation, the new law is a practical way to solve a thorny problem — how to efficiently deal with hundreds of crimes that happened long ago. The party has pitched the commission as a way to streamline a process that it describes as cumbersome and unwieldy.

A tribute to people killed in the Ballymurphy Massacre displayed on a wall in Belfast.Credit…Rob Stothard for The New York Times

“The reality is that inquests work for a very small number of people who were affected by the Troubles,” said Lord Jonathan Caine, the parliamentary under secretary of state at the Northern Ireland Office, in an interview. “What we’re trying to do with the new body is essentially achieve the same outcomes as an inquest. And what is the purpose of an inquest other than to establish the truth of what happened, as far as is reasonably possible?”

The truth is all that Mr. McClenaghan now wants, though he doubts that the new commission will ever ascertain it. Today he is an animated 65-year-old, known to friends as Dinker, and on a rainy Sunday in mid-August, he and a few hundred others stood on a quiet street in west Belfast.

He was among a crowd that had gathered to commemorate a different tragedy, the Ballymurphy Massacre. It happened three months before the McGurk’s killings and it left 10 unarmed men and women dead after a 36-hour shooting spree by the British military, which was trying to quell a riot. For years, the British government maintained that the dead were combatants and that some of them belonged to the I.R.A.

To family members, this was a calumny that for decades shadowed their lives. Then, in May 2021, the shadow vanished. That year, a judge in Northern Ireland’s high court delivered a forceful and unambiguous verdict: All of the victims were “entirely innocent of any wrongdoing.”

“We just stood up and clapped and cried and hugged each other,” said Briege Voyle, who attended the march and whose mother, Joan Connolly, was 44 when she was killed. “My children aren’t going to read in history books that their grandmother was a gunwoman for the I.R.A.”

Many people in Northern Ireland regard the exoneration of the Ballymurphy victims as proof that the British system, though painstakingly slow, is capable of delivering justice. But there is little chance that the McGurk’s Bar case will have a similar ending. In 2018, an application to reopen the matter was denied by the attorney general for Northern Ireland, citing a lack of new evidence. The case is destined to wind up before the new commission, which infuriates Mr. McClenaghan.

Briege Voyle at her home in Belfast, with a painted portrait of her mother, Joan Connolly, who was killed in the Ballymurphy massacre.Credit…Rob Stothard for The New York Times

“We call it the Shame Bill,” he said, holding up part of a banner that read “McGurk’s Bar Massacre: Time for Truth.” “Because it has nothing to do with reconciliation.”

The arc of the Troubles — a tale that starts with deep-seated tensions, lurches into shocking bloodshed and eventually settles into an uneasy peace — can be neatly summarized through Mr. McClenaghan’s life story.

Soon after the death of his grandfather, he joined the Junior I.R.A. (“Like your Boy Scouts, but with guns and bombs”) and became a lookout for older operatives. Within a few years, he was putting to use his apprentice training as an electrician. Eventually, as a member of the I.R.A., he and confederates placed four bombs in different shops in downtown Belfast, calling in advance to tell everyone inside to flee.

“The policy was to destroy the economy of Belfast,” he said. “The Brits had to put hundreds of sentries on duty to prevent people like me from getting into the city center.”

Mr. McClenaghan says that his bombs caused damage but not deaths. But as he put it: “There were no good I.R.A. bombs and bad I.R.A. bombs. I’m sure people were traumatized by the ones I made.”

In 1976, he was arrested a few months after his palm print was found in a getaway car that had been used in a bombing. At 18, he was convicted of possession of weapons and explosives and of planting bombs. When he was released, in 1988, he joined Sinn Fein, the political arm of the I.R.A., channeling his energy into campaigns for better housing and for truth and justice for those killed during the Troubles.

There is suspicion in the Catholic community that the new commission is principally designed to relieve the fears of British soldiers who committed crimes during the height of the Troubles. No longer will they need to fear a knock on the door, let alone a homicide conviction.

A recreation of the facade of the McGurk’s Bar unveiled in 2011 by Mr. McClenaghan and other relatives of victims, on the ground where it once stood.Credit…Rob Stothard for The New York Times

Lord Caine, the under secretary of state, would not comment on the McGurk’s Bar case, but he implied that it was exactly the sort of crime that the commission was designed to address.

The commission, he said, “has been portrayed by some people you’ve talked to as a way for the British government to draw a big veil of secrecy over what happened,” adding: “The opposite is actually the case. We want as much information in the public domain as is compatible with our overriding obligations to keep people safe and secure.”

One of the new law’s high-profile critics is Ian Jeffers, the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, a government post established in 2005 and based in Belfast. “If you look at solutions that have worked, like the Good Friday Agreement” — the 1998 accord which ended the Troubles — “that was negotiated by the political parties of Northern Ireland, all parties in the United Kingdom, the United States and the Republic of Ireland,” he said. “This bill is a solution imposed by one government party, and a bill by one party will not deliver reconciliation.”

An obvious alternative, say the bill’s detractors, would have been for the British government to improve and speed up the court system. When it works, as the Ballymurphy case shows, it can have a life-changing impact. And there are many outstanding questions about how the new commission will function.

How will investigations unfold? Will perpetrators flock to the commission for immunity? Or will the commission find that it can’t actually compel anyone to testify, no matter what it has to offer?

Mr. McClenaghan is braced for answers he won’t like. In 2011, he and other relatives of victims of the McGurk’s bombing unveiled a replica of the facade of the bar on the ground where it once stood. It is a monument and a place for prayer, as well as a reminder that in Northern Ireland peace is a process, not a settled state.

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