There is a poignant letter in today’s Irish Times from a Fr Joseph McCullough about the way his 17 year-old brother’s 1972 killing in Belfast has been treated by the authorities down through the years, from the days when the RUC controlled policing through to the modern PSNI and Historical Enquiries Team (HET).
He writes: “Like most, if not all, murders of this kind, it remains unresolved. My brother’s killing was never investigated, and requests from my family for relevant reports and information have drawn a complete blank from the RUC/PSNI. They informed my family that no paper work or forensic reports in relation to Patrick’s murder exist. They were apparently destroyed in a police station fire!”
It is what he wrote next that struck me hardest, given the lengths to which the PSNI and the HET have gone recently – after a near 40 year gap, mind you – to investigate the killing of Jean McConville, an inquiry which has seen the HET employ the full powers of the US judicial system, 3,000 miles away from PSNI headquarters in East Belfast, to obtain alleged evidence in the case. Contrast the subpoenas served on Boston College and the hounding of myself and researcher Anthony McIntyre that will likely follow if they succeed with Fr McCullough’s experience at the hands of the exact same people:
“A number of years ago I raised these concerns with the chief constable of the RUC/PSNI and the Historical Enquiries Team. I can only describe its response as abysmal.”
The other striking thing about the killing of his brother Patrick McCullough is that it happened in the same year that Jean McConville was disappeared by the IRA, in 1972, although a half a year earlier. Patrick McCullough’s killing has actually gone unsolved longer than Jean McConville’s.
Here’s what happened, courtesy of an excellent and thorough report in 2003 by Sharon O’Neill, then of the Irish News: “On the night of June 23 1972, Patrick was with a group of young Catholics including his girlfriend, standing chatting outside a bank at the corner of Atlantic Avenue in north Belfast, not far from his home.
“It is still a regular meeting spot for Catholic teenagers, but is located on the corner of a road which on numerous occasions has proved to be an easy escape route for both UVF and UDA killers and would-be murderers.
“Loyalist gunmen opened fire from the safety of their getaway car, hitting Patrick and his 14-year-old friend, who collapsed to the ground bleeding. Despite his proven resilience, Patrick’s injuries were too severe and a priest administered the last rites at the scene. His friend survived.”
The circumstances of Patrick McCullough’s short life and death are no less sad and deserving of sympathy than Jean McConville’s. He was born with spina bifida, had major surgery when he was just eight months old and was lucky to survive. At 14 he nearly drowned trying to save a younger brother, Gerard during a holiday in Co. Down. He had just got a job as an apprentice compositor at the Irish News when his life was snatched away. Jean McConville left behind ten orphaned children; Patrick McCullough left behind thirteen siblings and grieving parents.
According to Fr Joseph McCullough’s letter it seems that the HET and PSNI have made no credible effort to locate his killers. This despite the fact that Sharon O’Neill was able, 21 years after the killing, to put names to the killers: “Although no-one admitted responsibility”, she wrote, “it is believed the UVF was behind the murder and further inquiries by the Irish News have established that the identity of the killers was well known, yet not one person was arrested or charged.”
This seems to me to raise a key point about the HET, and that is whether it is a fit and proper agency to investigate Northern Ireland’s bloody past. Fr McCullough raises this issue, albeit tangentially and by so doing highlights a fundamental flaw in the HET’s mindset, at least as we know it be or how it would like the world to see it. He writes:
“Also of deep concern to my family are the number of allegations that have surfaced in recent times about possible security force collusion in the murders of innocent Catholics in the North, especially in North Belfast.
“These allegations ought to be thoroughly investigated and should cause great concern for the judicial integrity of the state. Such concerns should also address the rampant institutionalized sectarianism in the RUC during the Troubles.
“The fact that many murders remain un-investigated and unresolved should be a cause of deep shame to the British state, and to all political parties in the North that supposedly value truth and justice. It represents a monumental failure on their part that the demands of justice have been so pitifully disregarded down through the years.
“…….Surely the time has come for the UK government, including its Assembly at Stormont, to order a public inquiry into the failure of its police to investigate and to bring to justice those responsible for the sectarian murders of innocent non-combatant victims.”
If you want a glimpse inside the mind of the HET regarding this sort of issue, there’s no better place to go than its own video which is available on YouTube. The film features four victims, the son of a Catholic shot dead by the UDA; the sister of a British soldier shot dead, presumably by the IRA; the husband of a victim of the IRA’s Shankill Road Fish Shop bomb and the brother of two Catholic men killed by the UVF. And what’s missing? Well any relatives of people killed by the police or army, that’s who’s missing. Seemingly they don’t rate a mention on the HET video and that is not insignificant surely? It means they don’t really appear on the HET radar and in such a way are almost airbrushed out of existence. The video provides a subliminal and fascinating peek into the HET’s consciousness.
That’s not to say that in the video the HET’s commander Dave Cox does not at all address the issue of security force collusion in killings. He does, but look at how he deals with it: “Could his death have been avoided, was there collusion? Most times we are able to actually answer and dispel those worries.” In other words: “Our work is about nailing all those terrible terrorists and setting minds to rest about the role of the RUC and army.” It’s an approach that dovetails exactly with the state narrative of the Troubles, with the state and its forces on the good side and everyone else on the bad side. Problem is, it wasn’t ever as simple as that.
Fr. McCullough addresses an issue that is at the heart of any truth recovery process. It is not just about the IRA and UVF but also what the police, military and intelligence agencies did and, judging by that sort of evidence, the HET is simply not the body to do that job.
In this regard, the Provos’ attitude to the Boston College subpoenas becomes even more perplexing. As anyone following media coverage of the issue must know the Provos and their various surrogates have used the affair to mount attacks on myself and Anthony McIntyre. It is clear what motivates them: revenge for the product of the archive, notably a disturbing alternative version of the 1981 hunger strike and an angry rebuttal by Brendan Hughes of Gerry Adams’, “I was never in the IRA” nonsense.
If I was in the Provo leadership there are two other aspects of the Boston College subpoenas that I would be much more worried about and which I would be channeling my energies to counteract, if I were them.
The first is the point made by Fr. McCullough about the RUC’s core sectarianism and the implication that the HET is incapable and probably unwilling to address this fundamental reason for political instability and violence in Northern Ireland. The HET is an integral part of the PSNI and Sinn Fein signed up to the PSNI, promising to support and defend it in the new dispensation. This means SF supporting a truth recovery process which implicitly accepts the state’s version of what happened, and rejects theirs, and which seems mentally ill-equipped and/or unwilling to deal with the state’s role in all the killing in the way it should be.
The HET also seems hell bent on bringing as many people as it can before the courts for events that happened before the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and by so doing breach an understanding that pinned the peace process, that a line would be drawn under the past. Will Sinn Fein back Fr McCullough’s call for a public inquiry into the failings of the RUC? We’ll see, but in the meantime they prefer to go for me and Mackers.
The second has to do with why Patrick’s McCullough’s killing remains un-investigated and unsolved while extraordinary resources are being poured into probing Jean McConville’s death. People will say, well that’s because it was such a sad case, a widowed mother of ten thrown into an anonymous hole in the ground. It deserves such treatment. That may be true but Patrick McCullough’s killing was just as sad to his family and Jean McConville was not the only person ‘disappeared’ by the IRA.
If the truth be told, and as everyone knows, the feature of the Jean McConville killing that really sets it apart is the alleged role played by Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams. Now the Provos probably think that the ever cautious Mr Adams will never face criminal charges over the matter, either because neither the British nor Irish states will ever countenance such a thing or because he was cute enough back in the early 1970’s to construct firewalls between himself and the wet end of IRA business.
Perhaps. I cannot say. But if I was the Provos I would be a little less untroubled about this issue. The HET seem set on providing evidence for criminal proceedings against someone. It may not be Gerry Adams who ends up in the dock but if the PSNI get their way someone probably will. And if that happens the evidence provided in court can then be used legally in civil proceedings against Mr Adams and one way or the other he will end up in the dock. Go check Helen McKendry’s public statements if you doubt what I say.
This means the HET investigation carries profound implications for the Sinn Fein leader, for his party and for the peace process. But as I say, the Provos are more concerned with getting in digs at me and Mackers. Go figure. I can’t, except to say I guess some people just can never get away from the back streets.