Report forces North's Police Ombudsman into climbdown

Anger over a controversial report into one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles today forced the North's Police Ombudsman into a damaging climbdown.

Al Hutchinson's office monitors police conduct, but had to shelve its review of the bombing of a north Belfast bar in 1971 which killed 15 people, after criticism of its decision to largely exonerate police handling of the case.

Campaigners said the then Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) had helped maintain false claims by military and political leaders that the IRA was responsible for the bombing, when it was known that loyalists planted the device in the nationalist New Lodge area.

Two years ago the then Northern Ireland Office Security Minister Paul Goggins apologised for the false claims made by government officials at the time of the McGurk's Bar bombing, but bereaved relatives who were given early access to the Police Ombudsman's report were shocked to find basic errors and contradictory conclusions on the sensitive case.

Mr Hutchinson said: "I have said before today, and it has always been my philosophy, if we're doing wrong then we admit that and we set about correcting it. That's the stage where I'm at now.

"I think [on] the public confidence, actually they can be assured that we will always try to listen to the families.

"We didn't do it very well in this case and we're regrouping and learning, and admit that mistake, and set about to correct it.

"We're in that process of dialogue and we'll see where that goes."

Children and pensioners were among those killed in the attack on McGurk's bar, which caused one of the largest single death tolls of the Troubles.

The allegation that the explosion in the Catholic pub was an IRA "own goal" added to the pain felt by the bereaved since it falsely implied that some of those in the bar may have been paramilitaries.

The Ombudsman's office had seen security documents which pointed to an official policy to portray the attack as the work of republicans.

This was despite the fact that a retired military information officer interviewed by the Ombudsman said that, within a day of the attack, the military were aware the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was involved.

In 1977 a member of the UVF admitted driving the gang's getaway car - confirming the long-held belief that the attack was a loyalist bombing.

Relatives given access to the Police Ombudsman's report yesterday hit out at his conclusion that there was no suggestion that police failed to conduct a thorough investigation.

A spokesman added: "Investigators have found no evidence that police or the security forces conspired with the bombers before, during or after the incident, nor any evidence of police criminality or misconduct."

But the Pat Finucane Centre, a human rights lobby group that has campaigned over the case, pointed to inconsistencies and inaccuracies.

It said an RUC document circulated in the immediate aftermath of the attack falsely blamed the IRA for the bombing.

While one section of the report said claims that the police failed to carry out a thorough investigation could not be substantiated, the Finucane Centre claimed that elsewhere in the document the same allegation is said to have been partially substantiated.

The authors of the report also mistakenly omitted the name of one of those murdered and replaced it with the name of a bereaved relative.

Mr Hutchinson today pledged to meet with the families and said he believed his office had failed to fully explain the nature of its findings.

"Families made four specific complaints which we addressed but our statutory mandate of course is to gather evidence and if there is a crime, report it to PPS (the Public Prosecution Service) who will decide on charges. That was not the case," he said.

"I think we're not explaining it very well in terms of the family on our remit and mandate."

He said the families were innocent victims who, like many others bereaved in the Troubles, had no ready vehicle for securing answers on their loss.

Today Alex McLaughlin, whose father Thomas was killed in the McGurk's bar bombing, said the bereaved relatives would look forward to the chance to hear directly from the ombudsman.

"We welcome the meeting with Al Hutchinson," he said. "The sooner the better as far as I am concerned, so we can start talking. And Al Hutchinson - listen this time. Listen to the families this time."

Sinn Fein Assembly member for North Belfast Gerry Kelly said: "The report given to the relatives of those killed in the UVF attack on McGurk's bar yesterday was so inaccurate that it couldn't even get the year the attack happened and the names of those killed correct.

"There is now a job to rebuild public confidence in their work.

"This needs to start with the production of a report into the McGurk's Bar bombing which gets to the truth and delivers for the families."

SDLP justice spokesman Alban Maginness welcomed the decision to shelve the report.

He said: "Besides the brutal murder of 15 people, the bombing of McGurk's Bar stands out because of the horrific way it was deliberately turned into a black propaganda opportunity. The families are right to point out that the report does not fully confront that reality or the full role of the RUC in permitting or facilitating that blatant lie, which caused deep hurt and suffering to them for many years."

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