Decades later, so many unanswered questions

The truth — if it can be found — will only come through a full judicial inquiry.

And that will only be possible with full disclosure by all British agencies, writes Political Editor Harry McGee

THE McEntee Commission was never intended to be an all-encompassing follow-on to the Barron Report or from those achingly sad hearings where victims and relatives testified before the Oireachtas Justice Committee.

This commission, chaired by the eminent criminal lawyer Patrick McEntee SC, did not have the scope to explore the fundamental questions of collusion that have for 33 years haunted the survivors of the bombings, and the relatives of the 34 people who were killed.

McEntee’s terms were narrower, confined to failings identified in the Republic.

Specifically, it was asked to inquire why the investigations were substantially wound down within three months; why the gardaí did not follow up three significant leads; and why so many of the files and documents went missing.

On the face of it, this commission could not address the wider question of collusion between the loyalist gang responsible for the atrocities and British security services and forces. Collusion could only be dealt with as a possible, but unlikely, explanation for the major shortcomings in the garda inquiries.

But while limited in its scope, the commission was nevertheless charged with finding out why the gardaí did not follow-up on those three leads. To do that it had to try and establish if there was any basis behind those lines of inquiry.

Was there a white van with an English registration parked near the scene of the bombing that was in someway connected with a British army officer? What information was there relating to a Dublin associate of one of the UVF suspects who stayed in the Four Courts Hotel at the time of the bombings? And what about a man identified as a British Armycorporal who was allegedly sighted in Dublin at the time of the bombings?

Each of those three leads necessitated contact with British authorities. The commission was set up in May 2005 and was asked to report back within six months. There were eight extensions before yesterday’s final report. Perhaps all those extensions pitched our expectations beyond what McEntee was all about.

The commission was, like Judge Barron, “hampered by inadequate information”, including the loss and destruction of an “unquantifiable amount of garda documentation”.

The key finding of Mr McEntee in this regard is that there is “no evidence of collusion that supports the ‘winding down’ of the investigations.

The eight extensions to the end-date came about by dint of McEntee’s success in gaining some co-operation from the British authorities. He corresponded with Tony Blair’s office as well as the army, MI6 and MI5 seeking their cooperation in his efforts.

He got a ‘positive response’ to one of the specific questions he asked about the white van with the English registration or the British Army corporal. That led to a meeting with officials form the Northern Ireland office, the British Ministry of Defence and MI5, after which the Commission sought further evidence or documents into these specific lines of inquiry.

New information came to light that had not been available to Barron. However, this was a photocopy of a portion of a longer document. When McEntee sought to see the (entire) original document, the request was refused, because it revealed processes used by the British secret services to obtain intelligence.

However, there was some degree of cooperation. The first, helped track down the owner of the van. It showed the gardaí had interviewed the driver, a captain in the British territorial army, and had correctly concluded he was in no way connected to the atrocity. In fact, McEntee later interviewed him to establish it beyond doubt.

In addition to clearing that up, McEntee also brought finality to speculation on the third allegedly missed lead — the ‘spotting’ of a British corporal sighted in Dublin.

The inquiry, mostly through its legwork, tracked down this corporal and interviewed him. It established conclusively that there was no basis at all to the alleged sighting of him in Dublin on the day of the bombing.

It is the third claimed lead, though, that seems intriguing. This concerns a Dublin-based person who was an associate of one of the prime suspects.

There is new information but privilege has been claimed in respect of it. As a result McEntee has not been able to report and the information or documents over which privilege has been claimed has been sent to the Taoiseach. This is intriguing.

Perhaps this missing piece of the jigsaw could provide the key. More likely though the truth — if it can be found — will only come through a full judicial inquiry. And that will only be possible with full disclosure by all British agencies. And as a possibility, that is — going on past form — very remote indeed.

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