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'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:

Example One
When David Cooke of Alan Park, Donemana, attested as a constable; and whether he still holds the status of constable?
A. There is no record of David Cooke, Alan Park, Donemana, having attested as a constable in Londonderry. - Hansard, May 7th

Q. On what date David Cooke of Alan Park, Donemana, attested as a special constable in County Tyrone.
A. 1st June, 1964. - Hansard, 3rd June

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.

Example Two
When John McKeegan of Plumbridge, Donemana attested as a constable, and whether he still holds the status of constable?
A. There is no record of John McKeegan of Plumbridge, Donemana, having attested as a constable in Tyrone. - Hansard, May 7th

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.
A. John McKeegan, Plumbridge, Donemana, enrolled in the U.S.C., Tyrone, on 1st May, 1966, and is a member of Donemana sub-district. I regret to find that my reply of 7th May, 1969 about this person was incorrect. - Hansard, July 8th

Example Three
Was Police Constable Crawford on duty at, or present at Burntollet Bridge on January 4th, 1969?
A. Constable Crawford was not on duty and is not known to have been present at Burntollet on 4th January, 1969. - Hansard, May 21st

Q. Where Constable Crawford was active on duty on January 3rd?
A. Constable Crawford performed orderly duty in Claudy R.U.C. station from 12.30 p.m. on 3rd January until 2.30 a.m. on January 4th. - Hansard June 17th
"Sergeant Jones instructed Constable Crawford before leaving Claudy R.U.C. station to advise Mr. Gormley that he might run into trouble on his way to Burntollet." - Mr. Porter. Hansard, June 25th

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.

Example Four
Whether Ronald McBeth of Greenmount Gardens, Killaloo, has attested as a constable?
A. Ronald McBeth has never attested as a constable in the U.S.C. in County Londonderry. - Hansard, May 6th

"In fact, the Ronald McBeth to whom the Hon. Member has referred is not a member of the R.U.C. He served for a period as a mobilised member of the Ulster Special Constabulary at Claudy until he was demobilised as redundant on 31st October, 1962." - Mr. Porter, Hansard, June 25th

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.

Example Five
Whether police enquiries have established that Derek Eakin was present at Burntollet on the morning of January 4th; whether assessment has been made of his role in the ambush; and on what date statements have been taken or enquiries made of this man?
A. Allegations concerning the presence of (this person) at Burntollet are still under consideration.

Q. Whether Derek Eakin has been able to identify employees of Eakin's Bros., garage proprietors, taking part in the Burntollet attack?
A. See answer to (last question). - Hansard, May 21st

Q. What is the result of police investigations into the conduct of Derek Eakin?
A. Prior to the amnesty there was no evidence that Derek Eakin was present at Burntollet on the morning of 4th January, 1969. No statement has been taken from him and he has not been interviewed. Since the amnesty statements have been received from the North Derry Civil Rights Committee which allege he was present. - Hansard, June 24th

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.

Example Six
What steps have been taken (by the Minister) under the supervision of his department, to collect photographs of the attackers at Burntollet and surrounding areas on January 4th?
A. All police and newspaper photographs were examined for the purpose of identifying persons who were in Burntollet Bridge and vicinity on 4th January, 1969. . . - Hansard, May 7th

"Furthermore, the Minister has indicated in his replies, that the police were given access to Press photographs and police photographic material. That is in direct contradiction to what Sergeant Jones of Claudy has told the Civil Rights investigators. He said that not only did he not see any special police material but that he had not seen much of the photographic material presented to him by the Civil Rights people. The only photographic material he had been shown were indistinct Press cuttings. There is clear evidence that the authorities made no concerted effort to carry out a complete investigation. Indeed, if the police photographs were not shown to the sergeant of police in the barracks most adjacent to where the incidents took place and where a large number of the attackers lived to whom were they shown?" - Paddy Devlin, Hansard, June 25th

Example Seven
Whether any members of the family Riddles, of Ardground, Killaloo, have attested as constables; and if so, which members, and at what times?
A. William T. Riddles of Ardground, Killaloo, has served as a special constable in the U.S.C. from 19th December 1964 to the present date. - Hansard, May 6th.

Q. On what date Thomas Riddles of Ardground, Killaloo, attested as a constable and what rank he holds?
A. A William Thomas Riddles, Ardground, enrolled in the U.S.C. on 19th December, 1964. He is a constable in Kildoag. Another William Thomas Riddles, Ardground, enrolled in the U.S.C. in Kildoag on 25th November, 1959, and resigned on 1st February, 1969. - Hansard, June 17th

Q. On what date Robert Riddles of Ardground, Killaloo, attested as a constable, and whether he still holds such position?
A. A Robert Riddles of Torduff, Killaloo, enrolled in the U.S.C. on 13th January, 1950, and was discharged on 10th June, 1956 - Hansard, July 8th

Example Eight
Q. Whether Herbert McCombe of Claudy, has been subject to disciplinary proceedings arising from his conduct as a special constable, or from his conduct during the time he was active as a special constable?
A. Herbert McCombe of Claudy, was not subject to any disciplinary proceedings during his term as special constable.

Q. Whether Herbert McCombe of Claudy, was dismissed from the special constabulary; and what were the precise circumstances leading to such dismissal?
A. Herbert McCombe of Claudy, resigned from the U.S.C. on 6th August, 1958. - Hansard, May 7th

Q. Whether his (the Minister's) Department has records of any shooting incidents in the Burntollet area during 1958?
A. Shooting incident at Burntollet on 3rd August, 1958 involving H. McCombe. He fired shots into the air to alert patrol when visiting as sub-district commandant; as a result, resigned from the U.S.C. on 6th August, 1958. - Hansard, May 21st

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.

These examples could be multiplied. Dozens of attackers, clearly identified in readily available photographs, were given a clearance, a virtual alibi, by the Minister of Home Affairs. During the adjournment debate of June 25th, he stated with some force: "I do not accept that there was anything improper or half-hearted about police investigations." Time and again his answers told that after what he regards as thorough and whole-hearted investigation by police, named individuals had not been identified.

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, 1969?
A. No Sir. No formal written statement was issued to the Press by County Inspector Corbett on this date. There was a general discussion with the Press about the events of the previous day, but these conversations were not recorded.

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?
A. As I have not seen the report or the statements referred to, I am unable to comment.

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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