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No line can be drawn under the Troubles for grieving families

Previous official histories - for that is what is envisaged, despite use of the euphemism ‘public’ - have involved privileged access to files unavailable to others

There will be commemorations this month of the devastating impact and legacy of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings 50 years ago that killed 33 civilians and a full-term unborn baby, the largest death toll in any single day of the Troubles.

There are many open wounds related to May 1974; indeed, such has been the duration of the search for answers that the campaigns for justice have become their own history chapters.

Such campaigns can define a lifetime and create dilemmas for families of victims. Anna Massey, killed in the South Leinster Street explosion five days after her 21st birthday, was due to be married the following month and her honeymoon was booked. In 1984, Anna’s mother, Annie, was more interested in who planted the bombs than her father, Frank, who said, “I don’t want to know who it was . . . it wouldn’t solve anything”. But that changed, and 20 years later, Frank, aged 80, referred to having “fought long and hard for justice for our Anna”.

In 2003, journalist Vincent Browne wrote movingly of witnessing the aftermath of those Dublin bombs with his brother Malachy: “There were bodies and bits of bodies amid the rubble and, in the silence, sounds of quiet moaning. There was a fine strapping man, lying outside O’Neill’s shoe shop. He had a big piece of metal from a car stuck into his right side. We went back out and lifted a woman, also outside O’Neill’s. She was still alive and was moaning. As we lifted her, her body simply disintegrated in our arms. We placed her down again . . . We watched [Taoiseach] Liam Cosgrave on television that night speak with sadness, firmness and dignity. I remember feeling proud of him and a confidence that his commitment to bring the perpetrators to justice would be realised”.


That pride was dashed. The victims’ families were not afforded dignity, respect or basic information about who was responsible.

By the time of the 25th anniversary in 1999, there were persistent demands for an official public inquiry by the group Justice for the Forgotten.

Subsequently, Browne reflected on the Barron report, the culmination of an inquiry established by the Irish government in 1999, which revealed, in Browne’s view, a “shameful failure” to track down the perpetrators of the bombings: “What of the evidence in the Barron report that some Gardaí were wittingly or unwittingly working for the British? Why have those who did so knowingly never been brought to justice? . . . To this must be added the loss of important forensic evidence, the slow motion conduct of the investigation and, finally, the disappearance of files from the Department of Justice”.

Barron’s report referred to the British government’s “reluctance to make original documents available and the refusal to supply other information on security grounds”.

Answers remained elusive, as, it now seems likely will answers to similar questions about other tragedies, with the British government’s Northern Ireland Legacy Act halting further inquests or civil actions related to the Troubles and instead establishing the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery. There is much scepticism about how that commission will yield meaningful new information.

Nor is it surprising that cynicism exists about the recent announcement, hardly a coincidence, that separate to the Legacy Act the British government has appointed a team of historians to an expert advisory group that will assist “qualified and independent” historians employed to write “the public history of British policy during the conflict in Northern Ireland”. Previous official histories – for that is what is envisaged, despite use of the euphemism “public” – have involved privileged access to files unavailable to others.

The advisory group is understandably keen to analyse the mental bones beneath the physical skin of historic British policy. They have written of gaining “full access” to records and claim the project “will inevitably address issues such as collusion, the use of informers, and allegations of a ‘dirty war’”. They believe “it is worth engaging with this process, to allow historians an unprecedented opportunity to access otherwise closed materials which may never be released”. They further maintain “future researchers can build on, or revise, their findings in due course”.

How can such researchers do that if they are denied similar access for peer review? Some historians researching the Troubles have faced multiple refusals in response to FOI requests.

This initiative is from a British government that wants to “draw a line” under the Troubles. Those lines are unavailable to those who bore the brunt of the Troubles. One historian involved in the new project spoke to The Irish Times this week and said, “we will . . . keep asking awkward questions”. The historian “asked not to be named”. Why?

No doubt families of victims will keep asking awkward questions too, but publicly; some of them have been doing that for 50 years in the face of determination to push such questions away.