Thursday, 16 December 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I appreciate the Ceann Comhairle selecting this important issue for discussion here this evening.
We are now approaching the 49th anniversary of the bombing in Belturbet, County Cavan, that caused the deaths of two young innocent teenagers, Geraldine O'Reilly from Belturbet and Patrick Stanley from Clara, County Offaly. On many occasions, I have raised the issue of this heinous crime, through Dáil questions, debates in this House, at Oireachtas committees and directly with the British authorities. Sadly, nobody has ever been brought to justice for these murders and the injuries inflicted on so many others on that tragic night of 28 December 1972. Not alone has nobody been brought to justice, but the families have never got the truth about the perpetrators of this dastardly act.
I repeat that I believe that there has not been an adequate or comprehensive investigation by the authorities in Northern Ireland into this bombing. I put on the record of this House, in September 2020, information that had come directly to me courtesy of the good work of Professor Edward Burke of the University of Nottingham. Professor Burke's detailed report on the activities of loyalist paramilitaries, particularly in the Cavan-Monaghan area, shows very clearly that there was collusion between some British state forces and loyalist paramilitaries in a series of attacks in Cavan and Monaghan.
One of the subheadings in Professor Burke's detailed article is: "Blowing up Belturbet: Loyalist operations in County Cavan". That article includes the following:
At approximately 9:00 p.m. on the night of December 28, a red ford escort with at least two passengers, a young man and a woman, crossed the bailey bridge at Aghalane and made its way to the nearby town of Belturbet in County Cavan. An hour and a half later, the same car exploded on Main Street, Belturbet, killing two teenagers, Geraldine O’Reilly (15) and Paddy Stanley (16). Twelve more people were injured, some seriously, including Geraldine O’Reilly’s brother.
At my request, the Taoiseach has raised this very important issue with the British Government on the need to address our ongoing request for a full and comprehensive investigation. We need answers and the very least the O'Reilly and Stanley families deserve is the truth having suffered decades of grief for the loss of their loved ones. Almost a half-century has passed since that fatal night in Belturbet. We must never forget that it is never too late to get the truth.
The very well researched and very well written book by Mr. Joe Duffy of RTÉ and Ms Freya McClements of The Irish Times, "Children of the Troubles: The Untold Story of the Children Killed in the Northern Ireland Conflict", refers to the Belturbet tragedy as follows:
Geraldine was one of two children killed in the explosion; the other, Patrick Stanley, had been calling his mother from a phone box when the bomb went off.
Nobody has ever been convicted of the atrocity but according to Lost Lives, 'reliable loyalist sources' attribute the bombings to the UVF. ... The bomb killed two people, both children; Paddy and 15-year-old Geraldine O'Reilly are now remembered with a memorial in Belturbet.
That bomb, with such devastating consequences, originated in our neighbouring county of Fermanagh. We talk in macro-terms about legacy issues and dealing with the past but what we are talking about here is life and death.
We cannot deal with the past without getting full co-operation from all relevant security agencies. I know many families who have lost loved ones, including the O'Reilly and Stanley families, who have not got the truth, but those families have acted over the decades with such grace and dignity. They want to get the truth and they fully realise that getting prosecutions will not be easy. Unfortunately, time is passing.
I thank Deputy Smith for raising this matter. He has championed this issue for many years to try to get to the truth of what happened. The bombing of Belturbet on 28 December 1972 was an appalling and callous act of violence that claimed the lives of two innocent young people - Geraldine O'Reilly and Patrick Stanley - and injured many others. The dreadful effects of this attack last to this day. The suffering of those who have lost what was most precious to them goes on, and the fact that the perpetrators of this atrocity have never been held accountable for their crimes can only compound the sense of loss. I extend my deepest sympathies to the bereaved and injured.
As the Deputy will be aware, the Garda authorities have previously advised that the bombing and the murders were comprehensively investigated by An Garda Síochána at the time. The Defence Forces provided expert assistance and the investigation involved close liaison with the authorities in Northern Ireland. Despite every avenue of inquiry being pursued at the time, there was insufficient evidence to bring the perpetrators of this crime to justice. The investigation into the bombing and the murders of the two young people has not been closed and An Garda Síochána will pursue any new evidence or information that is made available. The Garda would, of course, work in close co-operation with the PSNI where that could advance the investigation. The Garda also liaises with the families on any developments that arise.
Following the publication of academic articles both last year and this year, which I thank the Deputy for raising, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, arranged for a copy of the articles, which concerned, inter alia, the Belturbet bombing and information on a potential suspect, to be forwarded to the Garda authorities for attention. The "RTÉ Investigates" programme which aired in December 2020 – "Belturbet, A Bomb That Time Forgot" – was also brought to their attention. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, will continue to engage with the Garda Commissioner on progress in this investigation. Most important, I appeal to anybody with any information that may be relevant to this case, even after nearly 50 years, to bring it to the attention of the Garda authorities to aid their investigation.
I thank the Minister of State for being present this evening. He has often spoken to me privately on this issue and he has assured me that every possible effort will be made to pursue these inquiries through An Garda Síochána.
I am also very pleased that the Minister, Deputy McEntee, confirmed to me about the information I put on the record of this House, which came to me through the detailed research of Professor Burke of the University of Nottingham following his work on British state papers, about the clear evidence of collusion between British state forces and the UVF. I also quoted Joe Duffy and Freya McClements who refer in their book to the "Lost Lives" publication. Those publications are detailed and reputable and the people involved have done their homework. Nobody can question the contents of the "Lost Lives" article by Professor Burke or the book, "Children of the Troubles".
Everybody is getting older. We are heading towards half a century since the fatal night the heinous crime was committed when two young teenagers lost their lives and others were injured. I am very pleased An Taoiseach pursued this matter at the highest level with the British Government. We must ensure An Garda Síochána keeps pressure on its counterparts in Northern Ireland and in Britain to have a meaningful investigation. The families want the truth. They do not want vengeance or revenge. That is not in them. They are so graceful and dignified. We all realise that, sadly, the chance of getting a prosecution will be extremely difficult. That is the reality 49 years plus after the incidents, but we must never give up.
It is appalling that Mr. Johnson and his colleagues in the British Government would come up with the idea of an amnesty for murderers from British state forces and paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland. They have suggested we cut off forever the possibility of getting the truth and that we close down all avenues of investigation. The Oireachtas must ensure the message continues to go back that we will never give up on seeking the truth. The very least the families, whom I know so well and who have suffered so much deserve is to get the truth and to be assured the agencies of both States and the Governments have their interests at heart and that they will leave no stone unturned to try to get to the truth of what happened on the night of 28 December 1972.
I again thank Deputy Smith for raising this very important matter. As he rightly pointed out, it is coming up to almost half a century since the bombings in Belturbet, but the pain is still very real for those families - the O'Reillys and Stanleys - who lost their loved ones, and the suffering continues for those families whose loved ones were injured in the horrific bombing. The Garda has not given up. If anybody has information on this, it will be investigated. It is never too late to come forward, to tell the truth and to ease people's pain and suffering. I commend Deputy Smith, who deserves to be praised for his tenacity in continuing to raise the very serious injustice suffered by these families. He has never given up on the very serious crime that occurred.
Looking to how we can move forward, it is important to emphasise the Garda criminal investigation remains open and any new information or evidence will be thoroughly investigated. The Government has also raised this case with the British Government in discussions on legacy issues and it will continue to do so. I assure the Deputy that the appalling events of that day are very much in the minds of those in the Department of Justice, in my mind and in the mind of the Minister, Deputy McEntee. I will continue to engage with the Garda Commissioner on progressing the investigation into this horrific crime. There must still be people alive today who know what happened. As the Deputy correctly points out, time is moving on, but there must still be some people out there with information. I urge them to come forward and to come clean and provide the information or evidence they may have to allow these families get justice for the loved ones they lost.