'Burntollet' by Bowes Egan and Vincent McCormack
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Text: Bowes Egan and Vincent McCormack ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna
A bad attack of wrongly-answered questions
ON June 25th this year Paddy Devlin opened an adjournment debate in the Northern Ireland House of Commons. Speaking on "Parliamentary Questions on Police (Burntollet Bridge Incidents)" he castigated the Minister of Home Affairs for supplying the House with parliamentary answers that were "in the main inaccurate and misleading."
In earlier chapters, reference has been made to questions about Burntollet posed by Paddy Devlin. Answering this criticism of his replies, Robert Porter rose and embarked upon a bitter and not wholly coherent diatribe, starting as follows:
"The Hon. Member has submitted this House to a welter of questions split into over 400 parts. I am pointing out that since he gave me no prior indication of the precise points to which he took exception, it would be quite unreasonable of him, or any other Hon. Member to expect me to deal with them this afternoon."
On what grounds did Devlin indict Porter's answers, and was the latter justified in making complaint that he could not be expected to deal with the issues raised in this adjournment debate? In Northern Ireland the Ministry of Home Affairs has overall responsibility for the police force, and a Member of Parliament is entitled to expect accurate and well-researched replies to questions dealing with activities supervised by any Ministry. Here are some of the questions with Porter's answers:
Q. On what date David Cooke of Alan Park, Donemana,
attested as a special constable in County Tyrone.
Our comment: Donemana is in County Tyrone. Other answers, including those in-example Two, show that this geographic fact was clearly known to Ministry officials. Time and again in course of his replies, the Minister reiterated that he must be given the address of individuals so that he could make enquiries of the correct county authorities. And, in reply to a question, he stated specifically that constables usually attest in their own residential area.
Q. On what date John MeKeegan of Plumbridge, Donemana,
attested as a constable in County Londonderry; and if he is still
a member of the constabulary.
Q. Where Constable
Crawford was active on duty on January
Our comment: the instructions last cited by the Minister were given to Crawford on the morning of January 4th. Apart from glaring internal contradictions, the Minister's various statements tally little with the explanation offered by Sergeant Jones and cited in our account of an interview with him.
Our comment must take account of the fact that the question incorporates an address that is not wholly accurate. The reference should be Greenmount Gardens, Claudy. But Sergeant Jones, who knew McBeth and his current address, had given a quite clear answer. It came back to Parliament reading: "Win. Ronald McBeth of Leckagh, Killaloo, served in the U.S.A. from 6th January, 1956 to 1st November, 1962". In this form it was unlikely that the man subject of the question would be easily connected with the reply.
Q. Whether Derek Eakin has been able to identify employees
of Eakin's Bros., garage proprietors, taking part in the Burntollet
Q. What is the result of police investigations into
the conduct of Derek Eakin?
Our comment: the amnesty, mentioned in the last quote above, was announced on May 9th. So it did not intervene between the two quite discordant replies, nor alter the situation outlined in the first answer.
Q. On what date Thomas Riddles of Ardground, Killaloo,
attested as a constable and what rank he holds?
Q. On what date Robert Riddles of Ardground, Killaloo,
attested as a constable, and whether he still holds such position?
Q. Whether Herbert McCombe of Claudy, was dismissed
from the special constabulary; and what were the precise circumstances
leading to such dismissal?
Q. Whether his (the Minister's) Department has records
of any shooting incidents in the Burntollet area during 1958?
Our comment: time and again it has seemed that disturbances were
sparked off by members of the special constabulary. Mobilised,
and paid only at times of unrest, they are direct beneficiaries
of disruption. After Burntollet some of the very people involved
in the attack were mobilised. In the series of questions above,
we sought to establish the facts about a previous disturbance
in this same area when a senior member of the constabulary simulated
an attack on other constables guarding Burntollet Bridge. On the
pattern of answers, we leave the facts to speak.
From Sergeant Jones of Claudy we learned how dilatory the investigations really were, and from him we also know the genesis of replies and the chain of responsibility if this term seems apposite in the circumstances. In his replies Porter has stated repeatedly that individuals have not attested as special constables in their residential areas. Yet these people have been seen by their neighbours, time and again wearing the distinctive uniform of the special constabulary, carrying weapons not of a sportive nature, and stopping and searching cars.
Other replies were quite unhelpful. The Minister refused to disclose the names of policemen when their identifying numbers were cited in questions. "In the interests of the service and of the man concerned, I am not prepared to reveal this man's name," he stated in reply to a question on May 2 1st. He has claimed that police instructions to their photographers, were not committed to writing or minuted in any way, and therefore the contents of such instructions remain unknown. And, on June 24th, the following exchange took place:
Q. Whether the Minister has a record of Statements made
to the Press by County Inspector David Corbett on 5th January,
Q. Whether in light of the report drawn up by County
Inspector Harry Baillie (the Minister) is satisfied that the statements
made by Mr. Corbett are accurate and justified?
Pass over the fact that Corbett's comments were widely quoted in the Press. Ignore the near certainty that even Mr. Porter's administration has access to a press clipping service. Just concentrate on the final reply: Porter claims that he has not seen the Baillie Committee report on police atrocities in Derry more than a month after it was completed. Perhaps this is the situation. But what can it mean?
In all, more than a hundred answers are demonstrably inaccurate or of no use. The reliability of the rest is in doubt, the utility of these being undermined by uncertainty, whether reliance may be placed on any particular Ministerial reply.
And Mr. Porter complains, six months after the events, ten weeks after the first questions were put, that he requires notice of errors and misleading information drawn up by his department, and police force and formally supplied by him to the House of Commons. After cutting through the fustian of Porter's Parliamentary statement it would still be impossible to discover the Paddy Devlin had written to him nearly a month before the debate, indicating the kinds of errors detected in the earlier replies.
It would appear that, with simulated anger, or in genuine confusion at the morass his advisors have created, Porter has tried to conceal one of the most extraordinary facets of the entire business. The government of Northern Ireland does not know the identity of its special constabulary. The Ministry of Home Affairs maintains no register of these armed officers. And, it would seem, even the Minister himself cannot hope to discover the facts unless he shows a great deal more determination in dealing with the police force generally and at local level than Robert Porter seems able to muster.
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