Northern Ireland

NI state papers: Kincora link to Brian McDermott murder discussed

Kincora Boys Home
Image caption The Kincora Boys' Home was at the centre of a child abuse scandal

The scandal involving child abuse at the Kincora Boys' Home in east Belfast in the 1970s is detailed in previously confidential files released in Belfast. The historian Éamon Phoenix has been examining the files.

Possible links between the murder of a 10-year-old boy in Belfast in 1973 and Kincora were discussed during a meeting in 1982 between Northern Ireland Secretary of State Jim Prior and the Lord Chancellor and attorney general, the papers reveal.

Image caption Ten-year-old Brian McDermott was murdered in September 1973

In December 1981, three former employees at the home on the Newtownards Road, run under the Stormont Department of Health and Social Services, were jailed for four to six years for abusing boys there.

Among them was William McGrath, a former house father at Kincora and a leading Orangeman who had earlier founded the Ireland's Heritage Loyal Orange Lodge.

Following these convictions, a meeting was held on 9 February 1982 between NIO Parliamentary Under-Secretary John Patten and RUC Deputy Chief Constable Michael McAtamney to discuss the forthcoming Committee of Inquiry.

The minister asked Mr McAtamney informally "whether any major revelations of a criminal nature might still emerge" that might warrant a judicial inquiry.

The senior RUC officer said he did not think so, although he feared that if McGrath was called to give evidence, "he might, for malicious or other reasons, make fresh allegations".

Norman Dugdale, Permanent Secretary at the NI Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) said he did not envisage the committee interviewing either Kincora residents or the convicted men but rather, "social workers and the like" in an effort to see how the problem had "gone undetected for so long".

Mr Patten raised recent allegations by DUP MP Peter Robinson that claims of sex abuse had been reported to the police before 1980.

Mr McAtamney blamed an oversight by the RUC "due to the security situation", and said there was no evidence of an RUC cover-up.

Two days later on 12 February 1982, the committee of inquiry into Kincora collapsed following the resignation of three key members.

In a letter to Mr Dugdale, they expressed "unease" about serving on an inquiry in face of persistent suggestions that major criminal aspects were still outstanding.

In a memo on the file, dated 14 February 1982, Mr Dugdale stressed the limited remit of the inquiry which was confined to administrative matters.

He added: "It is not an inquiry into allegations, which are rife, of a 'cover-up' involving Protestant politicians, businessmen, senior NIO officials or people associated with Protestant paramilitary organisations."

The establishment of the committee had been predicated "on the assumption that such allegations were without foundation" as no evidence to substantiate them had come to light during the RUC criminal inquiry.

'Clamour for justice'

While further revelations were unlikely, Mr Dugdale noted: "Statements from official sources, however, had failed to allay public concern around a cover-up.

"Rumour and speculation has continued to mount, leading to demands for the establishment of a sworn public judicial inquiry to establish the truth ... and bring 'the guilty men to justice'. The resignation of the three members of the committee had to be seen against this background."

Mr Dugdale said that while a public inquiry would quell the "clamour for justice", it would be difficult to justify.

Image caption This was the Belfast Telegraph front page on 5 February 1982

The mounting crisis was discussed at a high-level meeting involving Secretary of State Jim Prior, Lord Hailsham, who was the Lord Chancellor, and Attorney General Sir Michael Havers at the Lord Chancellor's office in London on 16 February 1982.

Sir Michael revealed he had spoken to the NI Director of Public Prosecutions, who revealed that the RUC were actively investigating three aspects of the Kincora affair.

'Embarrassing position'

According to the minutes, the RUC were investigating allegations that a DHSS file on Kincora had been "mutilated" in 1977.

The attorney general also told his colleagues: "The RUC were looking again at the murder of Brian McDermott in the mid-1970s [whose] death was thought at the time to have been sectarian, but it was now believed possible that there were homosexual aspects."

This was a reference to the unsolved 1973 murder of 10-year old east Belfast schoolboy Brian McDermott, whose mutilated and burnt body had been found in a sack in the River Lagan at Ormeau Park.

At the time, the press reported fears that a "psychopathic killer" was at large.

The DPP believed that these enquiries were unlikely to lead to prosecutions but that this new information "conflicted with what the RUC had previously told ministers", and left the government in "an embarrassing and exposed position".

'Gossip and rumour'

Lord Hailsham, Sir Michael and Mr Prior agreed that an inquiry into the whole affair, to be effective, would have to compel witnesses.

Image caption Jim Prior was NI secretary of state at the time

In the Lord Chancellor's view, the circumstances of Kincora justified a sworn Tribunal of Inquiry that should be carried out by a Northern Ireland judge, preferably Judge McDermott.

The issue was raised at Westminster in February 1982 by Peter Robinson, the DUP MP who accused the government of having misled the House over Kincora.

Finally, on 18 February 1982, Secretary of State Prior announced he had appointed a committee under a High Court judge to investigate the Kincora affair.

In a note to Mr Prior on 18 February 1982, NIO official DJ Wyatt doubted if a full public tribunal would "draw a line over the whole sorry story".

The fact was that "gossip and rumour" over Kincora could not be "killed", he said.

'Paramilitary links'

As the crisis continued, on 23 March 1982, Sir Michael Havers wrote to Mr Prior describing Kincora as "a more complex affair" than he had first thought.

"Though some of the allegations may have been mischievous, it is essential that the police have a free hand to pursue every lead," he said.

Image caption William McGrath was one of three former Kincora employees who were jailed

Political interest in the issue continued to grow, with DUP leader Ian Paisley demanding a meeting with Mr Prior on the abuse scandal in March 1983 following an Assembly debate on the Kincora affair.

This led to the appointment of Sir George Terry, the former chief constable of Sussex, into the RUC's handling of the inquiry into Kincora.

Sir George found "absolutely no evidence of a homosexual ring", or that such a "ring" involved figures such as police officers, civil servants and military personnel.

Secondly, he asserted that there was no "cover-up or concealment of evidence by the RUC".

The RUC, he said, found no evidence of any paramilitary involvement in abuse at any boys' home.

He did point out that William McGrath "had strong paramilitary links" that had prevented an official from passing relevant information to the police.

He also ruled out the involvement of "military figures", stating that they had "been very frank" with him.

Sir George recommended an inquiry to prevent any recurrence.

In December 1983, Mr Prior approved the appointment of a senior judge to head up a public inquiry into Kincora. The result was the appointment of Judge Hughes, a senior English judge.