President attends the 50th anniversary of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings

Fri 17th May, 2024 | 12:30
location: Talbot Street, Dublin 1

Speech at the Commemorative Event Marking the 50th Anniversary of the Dublin and Monaghan Bombings

Talbot St. Dublin, 17th May, 2024

A cháirde,

May I thank Margaret Urwin from Justice for the Forgotten, not only for the invitation to address you today, but for all her work over the years representing the families and survivors of the Dublin and Monaghan Bombings.

Marking, as we are, the 50th anniversary of that terrible set of events that constitutes the Dublin and Monaghan Bombings, in which 34 people were killed, including a full-term unborn baby, we also recall the many hundreds who were badly injured, the families left bereft with grief, and the communities torn to pieces by a day that became known as one of a savage violence, an ordinary weekend day horrifically changed. 

For so many of you here today, directly affected as you were, and are by the devastating bombings that day, I recognise that attending this commemorative event is a distressing occasion, even after all these years.

While I know that the people of Ireland stand in solidarity with you in your loss, it is yourselves and your families who have had to bear the grief of those tragic events, and, added to it, have had to bear the long wait for information on those tragic events, that was and is your right.

I know that the resulting pain and suffering remains with you to this day, as do the unanswered questions. Your still seeking to have responses to questions that remain unanswered represents the pursuit of a basic right by any standard of justice.

Even in the context of the many atrocities committed at that time, the Dublin and Monaghan car bombings of 1974 were crimes of a particular level of savagery, executed consciously upon workers and civilians with total disregard for human life and suffering.

As was so vividly captured in the accounts given by survivors including those interviewed for the recent excellent RTÉ radio documentary series The Forgotten, that evening of 17th May 1974 had begun like any normal Friday evening – the din of rush-hour traffic, people leaving work, many anticipating the weekend ahead as they made their way through the city centre. However, it was to become an evening that would become known as a dark day of terror in Dublin City and Monaghan Town.

Dublin city centre was rocked by three explosions – the first in Parnell Street, at 5.28 pm, resulted in the death of 11 people; the second explosion in Talbot Street took place almost immediately after the first, killing 14 people; the third explosion in South Leinster Street occurred moments later and was responsible for the death of two more.

Just 90 minutes later, there was a further explosion 75 miles away in Monaghan Town, in which seven people were killed.

In addition to the lives lost, it is estimated that more than 300 people were injured by the explosions, some of them disabled for life. No warnings were given of the bombings, and no organisation claimed responsibility for them at the time.

I pay tribute to all of those who in recent broadcasts and interviews have been recalling these painful events. As well as personal injury and the horror of seeing the impact of the bombs on human bodies and in what were familiar streets, now altered forever, many families experienced the slow realisation that a family member was missing, the panic and foreboding of the search that ensued in overcrowded city hospitals, for some the grim task of identifying loved ones through body parts, bits of clothing or fragments of jewellery, followed by the ordeal of the funerals – and then, for many, seeking basic information, nothing.

Like the families of so many other victims and survivors of the Northern Ireland conflict, so many of you here today have been trying to find answers about what happened.

The report compiled by the late Judge Henry Barron, published 10th December 2003, provided some of the answers, pointing as it did to systemic failures at State level, one that included possible collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries, the disappearance of important forensic evidence and files, the slow-motion conduct of the investigation, a reluctance to make original documents available, and the refusal to supply other information on security grounds. 

At parliamentary level, the subsequent hearings of the Joint Oireachtas Committee heard that in all probability most if not all perpetrators came from Northern Ireland, that in all probability information which concerns or identifies perpetrators still exists in Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

It is not only a matter of the most profound regret, it is unacceptable in terms of justice that no one group or institution has been made accountable for these atrocities. The manifest failure of both the British and Irish governments to initiate suitable responses in the aftermath of the attacks has left a legacy that cannot be left unaddressed.

I share with the relatives gathered, or represented, here their feeling of being abandoned and failed by the system, of their being denied justice for the loss of loved ones.

Many people have listened to the heart-breaking stories, heard of the remarkable bravery of bereaved families and survivors, and of their battle for the truth. However, relatives need more than an empathetic ear. Justice demands that they deserve the truth – no more, no less.

The truth must surely include a clear account of the context, the information shared and the knowledge as to preparations for what happened to, and caused the death and injuries of, those on 17th May 1974, the why and how these events occurred, who was responsible, and, perhaps most importantly, as to whether could the attacks have been prevented and, if so, why were they not so prevented?

The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement created a framework for peace and reconciliation on this island. Its principles and values remain as valid now as they were in 1998 when they were solemnly embraced by the people across this entire island. With regard to victims, the parties to the Agreement expressed their belief that,

“it was essential to acknowledge and address the suffering of  the victims of violence as a necessary element of reconciliation.”

Attempts to address the past have taken a number of forms since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The culmination of previous processes was the Stormont House Agreement reached in December 2014. The agreement was inclusive, involving both the Governments of Ireland and Great Britain and the input of ideas from civil society. The result was a comprehensive package of commitments which garnered a very large degree of support.

In 2015, the two Governments signed an agreement on the establishment of the International Commission for Information Retrieval, which included arrangements for its cross-border operation.  

As with those adopted previously in 2008 and 2011, a third All-Party Motion adopted by the Dáil on 25 May 2016 in relation to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings was conveyed to the British Government. The implementation of such All-Party motions remains a Programme for Government objective.

On Tuesday of this week (14th May 2024), the Dáil has for the fourth time unanimously supported a call for the British government to open and allow access to all documents relating to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.

The Irish Government has repeatedly underlined at its successive meetings with UK Governments that the Dáil motions represent a consensus political view in Ireland that an independent judicial review of all the relevant documents is required if progress is to be made towards establishing the full facts of the Dublin and Monaghan atrocities. 

During what was termed the ‘Fresh Start’ negotiations in 2015, a detailed draft Northern Ireland (Stormont House Agreement) Bill was drafted with the intention to give effect to the legacy arrangements agreed at Stormont House. Both Governments re-committed to the Stormont House Agreement in 2020 under the New Decade, New Approach Agreement.

It is a profound regret that no legislation as had been agreed as necessary to implement the Stormont House arrangements ever came before Westminster, but that rather instead, in July 2021, the UK Government issued a command paper setting out a new, unilateral approach, one which has had the effect of depriving victims’ relatives of justice.

The recent enactment of the UK Legacy Act 2023, suggesting new mechanisms for addressing the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland, has the effect of closing existing avenues for victims and survivors to seek truth and justice.

The enactment of that unilaterally sourced legislation has resulted in families who have spent decades fighting for an effective investigation into their cases of not only facing further uncertainty and delays but of the deprivation of legal rights. For example, 38 legacy inquests covering the deaths of more than 70 people are now suspended as a result of the Troubles legislation. Victims’ families have been further denied dignity, respect and the basic information which may be available as to who was responsible.

We share, on this island and beyond, a collective responsibility to find a way to deal ethically with the legacy of the Troubles. A strategy of feigned amnesia, or hoping time will deliver one is simply not an option, nor is any strategy of continuing the protection of previous evasions or failures to act. It is not morally acceptable, nor is it politically feasible, to request that those affected by such tragedy should forget about the past, “draw a line” or  “move on” in the name of any naïve desire for a supposed “closure” that may never be attainable. 

Momentous anniversaries of terrible atrocities, such as this most significant one we are marking together today, a full half-century on, are salutary reminders of the urgent need to find an ethical and comprehensive way to deal with the legacy of the Troubles in their totality, measures that respect the demands of justice in its most basic sense as set out in the Stormont House Framework.

Whether it is on this island or in other post-conflict locations across the globe, addressing the legacy of an embittered past is never, and can never be, an easy task. There is no simple formula of words or actions that can put things right. All societies emerging out of conflict wrestle with unavoidable pain, the legacy of the past and the measures required to address it.

We are all challenged to engage with our shared past in a manner that is honest, authentic and inclusive, and required to do so in a way that may assist in healing the wounds of conflicts, recognising different narratives as to their causes, and their repercussions, ones that cannot, and should not, be forgotten.

One of the many positive consequences of the State Visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland in 2011 and my return State Visit to the United Kingdom in 2014 was the solemn acknowledgment of the pains and injustices of the past that was required for the committing of both of our States to work that would secure a future based on equality, neighbourliness and friendship. This work required collective, shared responsibility rather than unilateral action that reverses previous co-operative effort. 

As we continue on the road of peace towards such a better future, we must not ever forget all those who died, those who mourn them and those who were injured. We must be willing to encourage and require of each other to do more in addressing the needs and requirements for justice of victims and survivors.

The Dublin and Monaghan Bombings are clearly events which leave questions that cannot continue to be left unanswered, including those pertaining to failures at State level. In addition to addressing ongoing unanswered questions, the achievement of convictions for the crimes that were committed must be addressed.

Let us take the opportunity that today’s commemoration constitutes to reaffirm not only our commitment to peace, and our revulsion of war and conflict, but our support for the relatives and all members of the public whose reasonable demand is, however embarrassing or painful it may be, for the full truth to emerge.

Siochán Sioraí le hanamacha na marbh. Mo bhuíochas libh uilig as éisteacht agus bheith i láthair. Beir beannacht.