Legacy: The lesson of history teaches us that it is the powerful who control the story

In two decades as a journalist in Northern Ireland, I have spoken to hundreds of people who lost loved ones during the Troubles

More than 50 years ago, the parents of 13-year-old Margaret Gargan went to an inquest into her death. One of twins, she was a tomboy who loved playing football and helping her father, the bingo caller at their local community centre. In July 1972 she was shot as she ran home from bingo, one of five – three teenagers, a father-of-six and a priest – killed by the British army in the Springhill/Westrock area of west Belfast.

“Maybe they were naive,” her brother Harry says of their parents, but when they went to the inquest “they thought they were going to hear soldiers saying, ‘sorry I shot your daughter’.

“All they heard was a statement that they’d identified an 18-year-old gunman, and they had to sit and listen to it.”

After a swift hearing, the coroner returned an open verdict, as was the case with the vast majority of conflict-related inquests at the time; the verdict of “unlawful killing” did not exist until 1980.


In two decades as a journalist in Northern Ireland, including two years interviewing families with my co-author Joe Duffy to write Children of the Troubles (2019), I have spoken to hundreds of people who lost loved ones during the Troubles – among them, the Gargans.

Patterns emerged: whatever their own background, and whoever was responsible – republicans, loyalists or the British security forces – families described the same hurt, the same desire for acknowledgment, the same desire for an investigation, for answers and – sometimes – for prosecutions.

In conversation after conversation, I listened to families outline experiences like the Gargans’.

Inquests like Margaret’s were a formality. Soldiers were not required to attend court, and their version of events was not challenged. Witnesses were not called; bereaved families had no legal representation and were told of the inquest at the last minute, or not at all.

“Most of the families wanted another inquest because there was no challenge,” says Harry Gargan. “I just wanted to hear them being challenged over what they said originally.”

In recent years, fresh inquests – often secured only after lengthy campaigning by families – have become a key mechanism by which they can, finally, find out what happened to their loved ones and have the official record corrected.

The most recent example of its power to heal comes not from the Northern jurisdiction, but from the South, and the inquest into the Stardust tragedy which, two weeks ago, found the 48 victims of the fire at the north Dublin nightclub on Valentine’s night 1981 were unlawfully killed.

It led to an apology from Taoiseach Simon Harris and an acknowledgment the victims and survivors and their families had been failed by the State; he hoped this was a “turning point”.

“Here today, in Dáil Éireann, we begin to put things right,” he said.

Yet, since Wednesday, an inquest into any killings which took place during the Troubles – such as the deaths of 15 people in the bombing of McGurk’s bar in Belfast in 1971 – can no longer take place in the North.

Responsibility for all Troubles-era inquiries have now passed to the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR), the new investigations body set up by the controversial Legacy Act, which came into effect on May 1st.

It will investigate deaths and serious harm related to the Troubles at the request of relatives and provide them with a report of its findings. It also has the power to refer cases to prosecutors if they uncover fresh evidence.

“We cannot bring back the fathers, mothers, and daughters and sons lost,” its commissioner for investigations, Peter Sheridan, said. “But we can investigate thoroughly, without fear or favour, and set out the facts of what happened for all across our community.”

Legal action under way in the domestic and international courts means that the final shape of the ICRIR will not be known for some time.

Much of the argument centres around whether the Legacy Act can deliver investigations compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The ICRIR insists it will and points out this was accepted by a High Court judge in a recent judicial review; a cacophony of voices argue to the contrary, including international human rights groups and the Irish State, and many families have already indicated they have no faith in it and will not engage.

“We reject any attempt by the British state to dress up the likes of the so-called Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery as a substitute for proper, just investigation,” said Ciarán MacAirt, whose grandmother Kathleen Irvine was killed and grandfather John Irvine was injured in the bombing of McGurk’s bar.

Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights [ECHR] – the right to life – stipulates that its signatories have an obligation to carry out an effective investigation into an unlawful killing; one of the most basic obligations of a state is that it should properly investigate the murder of its citizens, yet the terrible pattern of the Troubles is that it has failed time and time again.

In Margaret Gargan’s case, the investigation was one of “tea and sandwiches”; between 1970 and 1973, the procedure for soldiers after any deaths was an informal chat with the Royal Military Police, refreshments provided.

This weight of evidence is the answer to the UK government’s claim, when the legacy legislation was first mooted in 2020, that it would “end the cycle of reinvestigations that has failed victims and veterans for too long”.

Few would argue with the assertion that victims have been failed, and indeed that the past has not been dealt with in Northern Ireland, but the consequence of “drawing a line under the past” – to borrow another of London’s favourite phrases – is that this failing will not be made good. There will be no “putting things right”.

This is why the Legacy Act is of such concern, and why its significance goes far beyond the victims and survivors of the Northern conflict and indeed, Northern Ireland itself.

This was a unilateral break with an agreed approach, signed into law by the British and Irish governments at Stormont House in 2014; for all the good intentions of those now involved with the new body, its motivation was political – the fulfilment of a Tory election pledge to British army veterans.

In so doing it was indeed drawing a line under the past so that the full horror of what went on would never be revealed, thereby serving the interests of the perpetrators – former paramilitaries as well as state actors – rather than the victims.

Just consider the linguistic gymnastics going on in the announcement of an “official” but at the same time “independent” history project on the Troubles by the UK government last week.

The lesson of history teaches us that it is the powerful who control the story.

“Many ageing relatives may have to resign themselves to the fact that justice will not be delivered in their lifetime,” was the assessment of a report by international human rights experts earlier this week.

Family after family have said they will not give up. Morally, the very least they deserve is to have this put right; it is also only right that, whenever human rights abuses are committed, the world should know.

Some countries are beginning to address their own difficult pasts, from the legacy of colonialism and slavery to the treatment of indigenous peoples and the impact of recent conflict, while some have yet to embark upon that path.

The warning from that same report is that the Legacy Act risks “giving succour to authoritarian regimes around the world”. When the UK acts with impunity towards its own citizens, it makes it easier for others to do the same.

In recent decades Ireland has had its own reckonings. It has seen the potential for growth in the acknowledgment and discussion of past traumas, as happened during the Decade of Centenaries, and the healing – both individual and collective – that can follow the investigation of the past, such as the inquiry into mother and baby homes or indeed, the Stardust inquest.

Imagine if, rather than permit the fresh inquest into the Stardust tragedy, the Attorney General had instead instructed order an “end to the cycle of reinvestigations” and “draw a line under the past?”

Last year civic women leaders from Ukraine, seeking to learn first-hand how to rebuild a country after war, visited Belfast because, in the last 25 years, Northern Ireland has become an example to other post-conflict regions. In the wake of the Legacy Act, what sort of an example will it set?

After years of campaigning, the Gargans and the other families bereaved at Springhill got their inquest. It opened last year and heard final submissions on Monday, making it one of the last to reach a conclusion.

The families walked together to court; Natasha Butler, whose grandfather Paddy was among the victims, said their thoughts were with those who would be denied this moment.

“We pray for all the families who are getting … truth and justice ripped away.”