Speakers from the massacres at Ballymurphy, Derry, of the Miami Showband and the victims of the Stardust Fire addressed a Dublin Audience on Wednesday evening last (19th September) in the hall of Club na Múinteoiri.
They are victims and also campaigners and their stories held the audience spellbound. The campaigns arising from the Stardust Fire, the massacres of the Miami Showband, Ballymurphy and Derry all put speakers up to address the audience on their need for Truth and Justice under the banner of Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied. It was the personal sides to their stories that were particularly powerful, without losing at all the political thrust; McCann did his usual storming speech which he does very well but somehow, for all the eloquence and good points made, did not have the same impact – at least on this reporter.
Ann (Antoinette) Keegan, chairing the event and welcoming the attendance, said that she spoke both as a victim and a survivor of the Stardust Fire where 48 young people were killed and 241 injured at a Valentine’s disco on 14th February 1981. Annette survived but lost her two sisters in that fire: Mary and Martina.
She listed the steps in the slow and unjust procedures of alleged investigation that followed the fire at the disco. The first inquest had listed arson as the “probable” cause of the fire which had caused the deaths but the relatives challenged this verdict as incorrect procedurally as well as in fact and eventually had it overturned in 2009. Another inquiry years later under Judge McCartan, appointed by the Government, heard that there had been two emergency calls, one about a small fire of 18” high which could easily be extinguished and another about “smoke pouring from the loft” which had not been discussed in any previous hearing (this is the area that campaigners believe to have been the real origin of the fatal fire – DB).
Ann Keegan recollected that Judge McCartan had said that the families should have located that caller, even after all those years and got her testimony but Anne stated that it was wrong to apportion the responsibility for that to the families.
Historical note: It is a matter of record that the building’s owners, the Butterly brothers, had flagrantly violated many fire safety regulations in the building and that Dublin City Council had failed in its duty of ensuring entertainment venues it licensed were compliant with fire regulations. The Butterlys never even apologised and were compensated under the original verdict of “probable arson” to the sum of Ir£580,000 (€634,869).
Anne Keegan went on to say that the campaign had now decided that any further inquiry would be a waste of time and was calling for the reopening of the inquests as a matter of public interest. They had launched their campaign objective on June 14th at the Dáil and were pressing ahead with it now.
Anne then called a member of the campaign up from the floor to talk about the experiences of her family.
Selina McDermott took the stage and said that she had lost two brothers and a sister in the fire: William (22), George (18) and Marcella (16). Her father, she told the audience, who was known by the nickname of “Minnow” was a Dublin Fireman, though not on duty that evening. Alhough he had saved many people in the course of his career it ate away at him that he could not save his two daughters.
Both he and Selina’s mothers campaigned for the truth but her father’s workmates, who were very supportive of him, calling often at the house when he was off duty, knew he was going against vested interests and the Government and advised him to give it up because he would never win. On the other hand their mother wanted to continue the fight, which led to arguments at home. Selina’s father died six years after the fire.
I thought how sad that so many, particularly in the working class, have become conditioned to the propaganda of the ruling class that the latter cannot be beaten, a way of thinking that is perhaps much weakened now but still influential for all that. It is one of the ways in which the very small minority which is the ruling class can keep down the vast majority from rising up against them.
BLOODY SUNDAY DERRY
Selina sat down to applause and Anne Keegan called on Kate Nash, of the Bloody Sunday March for Justice campaign to speak.
Kate, like Ann and especially Selina before her, spoke in an informal way, telling the story of her family’s ordeal in Derry in 1972 when 14 unarmed civilians received fatal wounds from British Army bullets and another fourteen survived their injuries.
Kate’s teenage brother William was shot in the chest and three others were shot trying to go to his aid, including his father, Alexander Nash. Kate spoke about going to visit her father in hospital and he telling her that her brother was in the morgue. Her mother was in hospital too and it was considered unsafe to inform her of her son’s killing – until William was to be buried, when it was felt necessary to tell her so that she could attend the funeral. Kate said her mother never spoke until she returned to their home after the burial of her son but no sooner had she set foot inside the house than she let out a scream and broke down.
Kate also spoke about the devastation to the family and how her mother once said to her husband “It should have been you”, to which he replied “I know”, knowing what she meant.
The hurt did not stop there for the British Army alleged that all those shot had been armed and the Widgery Tribunal, convened with unusual speed, agreed with them. The majority of the media supported that verdict and also said nasty things about their family, in addition to alleging that they were IRA supporters (they were not, their allegiance had been to the SDLP1), accusing them also of living in filthy conditions.
Soldiers had also said nasty things to them at the hospital and at the morgue and on the streets afterwards.
Finally the Saville Inquiry was convened in the year 2000 which turned out to be the longest legal inquiry in British history, taking six years and costing a reputed 400 million pounds Sterling (approx. €450,800,000 today), with the families having to wait another six years for the publication of the report. Kate Nash made the point that the cost of the Inquiry was not the responsibility of the families and that “they (i.e the Government) spent that money clearing themselves”. David Cameron’s apology following the publication of the report in June 2010 was “a political thing”, she said.
The campaign wants prosecutions now of the British soldiers who had been identified as participating in the murders of unarmed civilians in 1972 but everything is being delayed and delayed, with the British Army providing legal advice and representation to those same murderers.
This recalled to me the words of Anne Cadwaller, speaking for the Pat Finucane Centre less than a week earlier, in the same building, as part of the Anarchist Bookfair. Cadwaller said that the British Government have what they call “three Ds” to deal with their scandals: Deny, Delay and Death (meaning hoping the accusers die meanwhile). Cadwaller could have added another “D” to her list: Deflect, i.e turn the blame in some other direction.
What Kate Nash did not tell the audience (and could not, considering the association of Sinn Féin with other campaigns represented on the platform), was that relatives and other activists had been dropping out of the Bloody Sunday campaign over the years and that when Cameron voiced his apology, Sinn Féin had called for the ending of the annual Bloody Sunday March, supported by some of the relatives. She and some other relatives and activists disagreed and have kept the march going every year since and it will take place again in Derry in the last weekend in January 2019.
She did not say either that she and some others had collected over 1,000 Derry signatures to a protest petition and conducted a sit-in protest at the “Museum of Free Derry” because of the inclusion of the names of British soldiers killed in the conflict alongside the names of Derry people killed by the Army, including the 14 Bloody Sunday victims. The protest was a success, at least for the time being.
Kate Nash sat down to applause and Ann Keegan called up the next speaker.
THE MIAMI SHOWBAND MASSACRE
Stephen Travers described himself as the last remaining survivor of the attack on their showband in 1975. For many years he had refused to acknowledge that he was a victim and said that when he did so at last “the wall fell in on me.” Acknowledging yourself as a victim, he told the audience, makes one “lose the sense of self”.
Historical note: Showbands were an Irish music phenomenon popular from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s; a five or six-player dance band playing standard dance numbers, covers of popular music hits and waltzes. The bands’ versatility extended to traditional and folk numbers and even blues and a number of famous Irish musicians and singers got their start in showbands. The typical venue was the dance-hall, cheaply-constructed buildings without an alcohol licence located in towns and villages across the country and to these the bands travelled, usually in their minibus, returning home after the conclusion of their gig.
Stephen told the audience that as a bass guitar player he had been headhunted by major bands of the time but chose the Miami because unlike the others, they did not wear band suits (one needs to remember that even the Beatles and the Animals wore suits at first). He had not been interested in politics, nor had his family and the band included two of Protestant background although apparently religion was not a subject of discussion (or possibly of interest) among them either. However, people should take an interest in current affairs and the political background, he told the audience now.
The band (minus one who lived in Antrim) was returning from a gig in Banbridge Co. Down (one of the Six Counties) and heading to cross the Border (into the Irish state) when they were stopped at what appeared to be a British military checkpoint and asked to get out, which they did. Stephen made a point of saying that he would always refer to those men as “British soldiers” rather than Loyalists or paramilitaries although their membership of the Ulster Defence Regiment is often glossed over or even concealed.2
The soldiers exchanged jocular banter with the band members while they pretended to search the back of the van but were in fact placing a bomb in it. Stephen remarked on the mindset that could permit people to joke like that with those they intended to be their victims. Another man arrived of noticeable military bearing and the demeanour of the other soldiers changed immediately, smartening up and becoming more professional. This man was also in uniform but his beret was of a lighter shade and he had an upper-class English accent (Stephen said he had a good ear and had also worked in England for a period); other band members took him to be a British officer and expected that the whole thing would be expedited now and they would soon be on their way.3
Stephen believes that the plan was for the bomb placed in their van to explode as the band traveled on and that the incident would be used to justify checkpoints and searches of traffic crossing the border in the area, accusing the IRA of using the roads to transport arms and implicating the dead members of the Miami Showband as IRA “carriers” into the bargain.4
Softly spoken but his voice sometimes thickening with emotion, Stephen described how the bomb went off prematurely, dismembering the two UDR/UVF men and blowing the band members over a ditch and into a field. The soldiers then opened fire at the band members. Stephen was shot with a dum-dum bullet which made it impossible for him to walk, although he felt no pain; he could see no blood but his stomach was bloated as the bleeding was internal. He lay down and pretended to be dead. Two band members tried to drag him out of a pile of bodies but were shot down and Stephen described how the handsome Fran O’Toole, keyboard player, was shot many times in the face and a number of times in the groin. A number of band members pleaded not to be killed but were savagely shot amidst a stream of obscenities from their killers.
When the murderers left, there were only two band survivors in the field and the other flagged down a car and was taken to the nearest RUC5 barracks, from where officers hurried to the scene and, for awhile, were afraid to approach Stephen in case the bodies were booby-trapped. Three band members had been killed and two injured non-fatally (although one has died since, leaving Stephen the only survivor).
Stephen referred also to the fact that he had been around the Dublin City centre in 1981 when he learned of a big fire at the Stardust and headed out there in his van. He said he was able to drive right up to it since no attempt had been made by the Gardaí to preserve forensics at the scene of crime.
There was one unexpected postscript in this deeply personal and yet highly political story: Stephen Travers, who loved playing music and gigging, who had been head-hunted as a talented bass guitar player, told us that he never got to play in any showband again. Whenever a band was up on stage helping people to enjoy themselves, they could not afford to have the mood darkened by the survivor of the Miami Showband Massacre sharing the stage with them.
Stephen Travers concluded by saying that all those of whatever political background who had lost people in events of that kind or in the conflict wanted the same thing: truth and justice.
Eamonn McCann is a journalist and broadcaster from Derry and member of the People Before Profit Alliance (formerly Socialist Workers’ Party) and former elected Member of the Six County statelet’s legislature. He is a veteran campaigner and was prominent in the Civil Rights movement in the Six Counties; he was to be one of the speakers at the rally on what turned out to be Bloody Sunday and supports the ongoing Bloody Sunday March for Justice.
McCann generally speaks forcefully without need of notes and in an enclosed space would not need a microphone (but unfortunately was handed one which thankfully failed some time later).
McCann referred to the Ballymurphy and Derry massacres by the Parachute Regiment and other killings by them of unarmed civilians in Ireland, including a drunk Shankill6 character who was heard to shout mockingly at them seconds before they gunned him down.
The Parachute Regiment’s last posting on active service had been Aden, which is in what is now Yemen, he told the audience, where they had been fighting a national liberation insurgency led by FLOSY7.. There the Paras had been engaging in atrocities against the Arabs and they had of course got away with it, so when they were sent to Ireland they did it again. And essentially got away with it there too.
The Saville Enquiry, which McCann said the Irish Government had insisted on as part of the Good Friday Agreement process, had essentially blamed seven low-ranking British Army soldiers. Then Captain Michael Jackson and General Robert Ford, who were in charge overall and in Derry that day, were not harmed by the incident and Jackson’s career in particular had “taken off like a rocket”, McCann said, as by the time of the Saville Inquiry he was Chief of Staff of the British Army.
Jackson had written a false account of the shootings of 14 victims as “terrorists” which could not correspond to any of the actual accounts of what had happened; “in some cases the bullets would have had to go through buildings” stated McCann and recalled that these had been presented to the world press after the murders and became the official British version around the world. However, when confronted with this evidence during the Saville Inquiry, at first Jackson “could not remember” and later “had a vague memory” of doing it.8
“They would not have been able to hold that Inquiry nor to make that apology in the House of Commons if Jackson and Ford were being held up to blame,” McCann told the audience. “They’ll sacrifice a few lower-rank soldiers – they are cannon-fodder and killers, that’s all they are to them – but they won’t blame their own.”
McCann alluded also to the Grenfell Tower disaster in London and was sure that the Inquiry would not end up placing the blame on the local authority and politicians’ connections to property companies. He then went on to draw connections between the Butterlys who owned the Stardust and the ruling class of Ireland on the one hand and the ruling class of Britain on the other, how their crimes are always being covered up and how it is necessary to change the system that protects that class.
After the applause that met McCann’s conclusion, Anne Keegan thanked everyone for their attendance and encouraged them to follow the campaigns and to continue to support them and people dispersed.
COMMENT: THE UNDERLYING REAL STORY?
The Stardust fire was an accident, possibly due to dangerous procedures and/ or lack of safeguards. It was not an accident that emergency exits were locked; they were locked deliberately, against all legal fire safety requirements, no doubt to prevent anyone entering without paying at the front entrance. But when the smoke and fire took hold, many people could not escape nor those outside break in to rescue them and 48 young people died and 241 were injured, families and whole communities devastated.
Therefore the owners, the Butterleys, should have faced trial for manslaughter; instead they were compensated to the tune of nearly €635,000. That the Butterlys were not charged, that the matter was badly investigated and that they were exonerated in the first inquest, was due to connections of the owners of the business with the Irish ruling class, and with the leaders of its main political party, Fianna Fáil. The appropriate term for that kind of collusion is criminal conspiracy.
Many people, most perhaps in Europe and the English-speaking world, would think that the sending of the Paratroop Regiment to Ireland and the British encouragement of Loyalist death-squads and active collusion with them was an aberration. Others might think them deliberate plans but the responsibility only of individual officers and politicians. Some would see the massacres carried out by the Paras and the Loyalist murder gangs as unconnected, as different initiatives.
However, any objective evaluation should take the following sequence of events and their nature into account:
The Six Counties was a portion of Ireland which the British colonialists insisted upon holding on to 800 years after their invasion of Ireland (1169), after a guerrilla war encouraged them to withdraw from the rest of the country (1921). It was ruled by a manifestly sectarian regime discriminating against its substantial but minority Catholic population in every area of life but most brutally in law, policing, employment and housing.
Popular resistance begins or is renewed in 1964 after a dormant period reaching a high point in 1968.
Repression is deployed (police baton charges, gas, bullets) in 1968-’69 but fails – resistance increases
British perception is that it is faced with insurgency and begins to deploy its various arms and methods
British Army is sent in 1969
- At some point the SAS is also sent in (difficult to pin down the year)
Control of mass media increases over following years (many journalists attend Army briefings in hotel and file their reports without checking with local communities)
Brigadier Frank Kitson installed as Area Commander (1970) with a free hand
Gangs (UDA) and Pseudo-Gangs (MRF) are created under Kitson’s guidance (1970)
More British troops sent in. Raids on Catholic areas and 3-day curfew on Falls Road (1970)
Community resists and first armed retaliation against the British takes place (1970)
British Army arms the gangs through recruiting them into the Army itself (Disbandment of B-Specials and creation the UDR British Regiment January 1970)
Paratroopers sent in (1971)
Gangs (UVF) semi-pseudo gangs (UDA/ UFF) operating fully integrated with British undercover squads and Pseudo-gangs (MRF and UDR) Summer 1971
Internment without trial introduced August 1971
Immediate civilian protests against internment August 1971
Ballymurphy Massacre of protesters by Paratroopers August 1971
Derry giant demonstration against Internment and Ballymurphy Massacre January 1972
Massacre of protesters by Paratroopers January 1972
Formation of highly-secretive and untypical Red Hand Commando Loyalist paramilitary organisation (1972)
British Army-RUC-Loyalist murder gangs (UVF) joint operations
Trial by jury abolished for those charged with resistance “offences” and Diplock Courts founded Aug. 1973
The “conveyor belt” is created – standard torture in Castlereagh Barrack, conviction in courts using tortured “confessions”, prison sentences (1970s-1990s)
- Prevention of Terrorism Act is introduced to terrorise and silence the large Irish community in Britain 1974
- Nearly a score of innocent people from the Irish community in Britain are framed on bombing charges and sentenced to long terms in prison (if the death penalty were still in force they would have been hanged) 1974
- SAS soldiers are detained on undercover operation within the Irish state but are soon released 1976
Rules for Coroner’s Courts in the Six Counties changed to restrict the scope of verdicts from pointing towards the perpetrators (e.g Crown forces) or the legal status of the homicide (e.g “murder”) 1976.
Campaign to break Republican prisoners’ resistance 1976-1981
- Change in British electoral legislation to prevent prisoners standing for election (1981see link)
Recruitment of informers and double-agents by Army and RUC intelligence
Elimination of prominent figures in the Resistance unlikely to agree to the deal 1976-19879
Testing the remainder to find supporters for the deal
The deal is offered and some concessions made (but no fundamental ones), resulting in the Good Friday Agreement 1998.
One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to see here a pretty standard response of a colonial power to insurgency in one of its colonies, escalating to deal with an escalating resistance and aiming, if military defeat seems impossible, for wearing down the resistance and the communities supporting it, then to subvert, suborn and to bring the leadership to negotiate a deal which will end the resistance but not the existence of the colony.
Of course the process was bound to have some tweaks, as this anti-colonial resistance was taking place within Europe and breaking out just 50 years after a national liberation war within that country. Still, overall, a pretty standard colonial war.
And there are many other aspects not dealt with in that timeline, including subversion of the early 20th Century Irish national liberation movement and the subsequent State, bombings and killing of civilians there in the 1970s, recruitment of agents among news reporters, blackmail operations, promotion of pseudo internal communal opposition to the resistance, such as the SDLP and “Peace (sic) Women”, the use of gas and plastic bullets in particular ways and others.
Indeed, it is those who insist on seeing all these factors as unrelated or not part of colonial policy, agreed at the highest level, who are taking the unrealistic view. One has to be determined not to see the facts and their connection to colonial policy in order to maintain the illusion they insist upon, that the problem was/is one of “some bad apples” and “some bad decisions”.
References and Further Reading (it is not suggested that everything stated in these sources is correct):
1 Social and Democratic Labour Party, a reformist party in the Six Counties which displaced the Irish Nationalist Party in nationalist area voter support and later got displaced by Sinn Féin.
2 The Wikipedia entry on the “Miami Showband Killings” (sic) and a Wikipedia entry on showbands (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_showband) which also mentions the incident as contributing to the decline of the showbands both refer to the unit involved entirely as UVF, the Ulster Volunteer Force (a Loyalist paramilitary organisation responsible for more than 500 deaths, mostly Catholic civilians and a great number chosen at random). Only later in the text does it reveal that “at least four of the gunmen were serving soldiers from the British Army’s Ulster Defence Regiment”.
3 In his book, which I have yet to read but referred to in the Wikipedia entry on the massacre, Stephen said that the RUC interviewing him were not willing to accept this description of that individual. The man is believed by some to have been Captain Robert Nairac of the Grenadier Guards regiment but seconded to one of the special undercover units of the British Army. The IRA announced that it had executed Nariac in May 1977, having been captured by them while undercover; his body is still missing.
4 The UVF did in fact issue a lying statement to that effect in a eulogy to two of their dead members.
5 The Royal Ulster Constabulary, notoriously sectarian and armed British colonial police force taking over from the also-armed Royal Irish Constabulary in 1922, soon after the partitioning of Ireland. In 2001 it was rebranded as the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
6 Strongly British Loyalist district of Belfast.
7 The Aden conflict or “emergency” as usually referred to in posts about this British colonial conflict (and totally absent from a number of Wikipedia and other pages about Aden) was an insurgency against British forces in Aden, a British colony since 1839. Although an “emergency” was declared on 10 December 1963, the conflict had been going on for longer. At peak the British Army had 30,000 service personnel there and 15,000 South Arabian troops and of their combined forces suffered 382 killed (227 British Army) 1,714 wounded (510 B.A.). No statistics on the number of Arabs killed by British forces and their allies are easily available. “Britain dropped more than 3,000 heavy bombs and more than 2,500 rockets in a bid to pacify the guerrilla insurgency who used the Radfan Mountains for cover” (Daily Mail article 2017 glorifying the British in general and the Paras in particular).
A joint effort was created between the British forces and the Federation Regular Army (FRA – of the Federation of Southern Emirates, a British protectorate) to combat the National Liberation Front and the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY). The paramilitary groups initiated a guerrilla campaign of grenade attacks against the British forces. By 1967 the situation in Aden escalated and the evacuation of British families and citizens was enforced. The city erupted in riots, tensions were heightened further by the Six Day War and a mutiny broke out within the Federation Regular Army.
The conflict ended on 30 November 1967. British forces withdrew from Aden and the National Liberation Front seized control of the government. The People’s Republic of South Yemen was declared.
8 In a short piece in the Irish Times in September 2013 (see link in References and Further Reading section) Eamonn McCann cast doubt upon the same testimonies which he denounced in the meeting reported here. McCann attended nearly every day of the Saville Inquiry in London, staying with family there and traveling there and back at his own expense and wrote a weekly report on the Inquiry for the Irish Times.
9 Too many to list all here but covered in a number of publications; the first was probably Máire Drumm of Sinn Féin by the mysterious Red Hand Commando Loyalist paramilitary organisation (also claimed by the UFF) and those convicted afterwards included one “ex British soldier”. The eliminations encompassed the attempted murders of veteran Civil Rights campaigner, ex-MP and active anti-imperialist socialist Bernadette McAlliskey (shot 14 times) and her husband in 1981; the ambush and execution of members of the IRA unit of the East Tyrone Brigade, including IRA Vols. Jim Lynagh and Pádraig McKearney, by the Special Air Service in 1987; and the last perhaps, Dominic McGlinchey 1994 by persons unknown.