Ciarán MacAirt (above right, with lawyer Niall Ó Murchú) is the founder of Paper Trail, a family-led organization and social enterprise that works to uncover archival evidence in support of family-centered truth-recovery efforts in Northern Ireland.
In December 1971, MacAirt’s grandmother and fourteen others were killed when a bomb planted by loyalist paramilitaries exploded in a Belfast bar. Though the tragedy took place more than three years before MacAirt was born, the impact of his family’s loss would eventually inspire him to play a leadership role in the McGurk’s Bar Massacre Campaign, write a book about the families’ pursuit of truth and start Paper Trail as a weapon in the war against disinformation by the British state.
Éist spoke with MacAirt about his motivation and Paper Trail’s unique approach to accessing critical information:
What inspired you to create Paper Trail?
Paper Trail has its genesis in my own pursuit of truth. My grandmother, Kathleen Irvine, was one of 15 innocent civilians, including two children, murdered by pro-state Loyalists in McGurk’s Bar on 4th December 1971. The British state, its Security Forces and intelligence agencies immediately set about covering up the circumstances of the attack and burying crucial evidence. They instead blamed the bombing on the civilians in the bar and criminalized each and every one of them, including my grandmother. Meanwhile, the mass murderers who bombed the bar were allowed to kill and kill again.
British Information Policy, information management and the creation of disinformation underpinned the cover-up so I realised that information discovery would be the main weapon we had to demolish their lies. So I developed and continue to develop the skills I need to access this secret information and use it for our families’ on-going Campaign for Truth.
I also began helping other families and their solicitors in any way I could although I saw that there was a need to have a more focused, strategic approach to the collection, collation and dissemination of the archives we targeted. The ethos and mission of the work dictated that a human rights charity was the best vehicle for our work. It was important though that our work was family-centred and family-led. So, with the support of key family campaigners, lawyers and human rights workers, we created Paper Trail (Legacy Archive Research) and I became a member of the Academy of Experts so that I could formally support the work of legal professionals.
Your website says that you offer “specialized and targeted legacy archive research to the legal profession, the media and academia throughout Great Britain and Ireland.” What is “legacy archive research”? Can you tell me about your services in more detail?
Legacy archives are records pertaining to social upheaval and conflict in Ireland and Britain over the past half century and beyond.
Paper Trail (Legacy Archive Research) is a charity set up to help ordinary families who lost loved ones during the conflict access official information buried in archives for decades. If we find information relevant to a particular case or campaign, we contact the families or their representatives, and offer them it. We also help families target and translate archives which could prove critical for their campaigns.
Paper Trail is also a social enterprise which offers legacy research, consultancy and training services to lawyers, academics and the media. We can help these professionals make better use of their time and resources as we have the experience and expertise in targeting and accessing the information if, of course, it is open in public records.
For example, the information which we discovered has helped develop historic legal cases that might not have been allowed to proceed to court otherwise. Our document finds have informed the focus of legal arguments and helped to win cases. They have even helped to re-write history, or rather rectify the false narrative created by the state.
All the while, though, we are mindful that, whilst our archive finds help to inform future generations, they are invaluable to victims’ families who are living with the burden of loss compounded by lack of truth.
How do you go about accessing the information you are looking for? How do you know if what you are looking for even exists? Have you come across any significant roadblocks to access certain archives?
We rigorously plan and research what information streams we need to target before even visiting archives or issuing Freedom of Information requests in order to maximise what limited time and financial resources we have. Preparation is the key. We are a learning organisation and constantly developing our techniques. Importantly too, we share information and learning with other legacy researchers and organisations.
The e-catalogues of the main public records, and indeed the staff themselves, are essential to our work as well as we need not waste valuable time tracking closed documents. Because of the nature of the information we seek and the sensitivity of the state regarding the information, most of this information is closed. We concentrate on what we can access and present to families, although we can also offer their legal representatives advice on what closed documents they should target in court via discovery.
I have also encountered numerous roadblocks to accessing information including several national security bars and public interest tests. Delay and denial are also tools of the state’s trade in secrecy and cover-up. As well as key High Court cases demanding discovery of documentation, I have even been forced to take the Information Commissioner’s Office to tribunal in London as the National Archives and then the ICO denied my access to a file that is crucial evidence in the murder of my grandmother and the 14 other innocent civilians in McGurk’s Bar. We know too that files that were open are being closed again and files just disappearing so we are forever jostling and fighting to access even a fragment of the truth. Nevertheless, the battles prove worthy each and every time.
Is there an art to the business?
If there is any art, it is based on thousands of hours experience examining archives, reading history books and court documents. Listening to families and witnesses, hearing their stories, is at the core of our work too. Their very human need for information and closure drives us and that is why it was so important that Paper Trail was family-led. We have family campaigners leading our board along with human rights lawyers. We also work closely with family members who are performing their own research; and sharing and collaboration are other cornerstones of what we do.
If there is any luck, it will be that information has slipped past the censor and been released because we take it for granted that the state will retain, close or bury much of the information we seek – unless its censors have missed the significance of the files.
Can you tell me about some of the most remarkable evidence that you’ve been able to find?
Some of the most remarkable evidence is the most horrific unfortunately. Like a young mother shot dead by undercover British soldiers and the police blaming local paramilitaries. So the family thought that members of their own community had killed their loved one until we proved otherwise. We also uncovered the suicide of a young British soldier who killed himself in Belfast, far from home. The British army recorded it as an accident and then promptly forgot about him. But he is as much a victim of our conflict as any of our loved ones, and he should be remembered as such.
Archive discovery is also central to the McGurk’s Bar massacre cases as I have provided streams of information which prove that the British state and its security forces wilfully created disinformation about the victims and buried evidence regarding the true culprits.
So Paper Trail’s work features in other important legal cases and families’ campaigns as well as correcting history.
Much of what you do seems like detective work. What happens when you uncover evidence of a certain party’s guilt? Is there a particular procedure that you follow, or do you leave it up to your client?
We are a young organisation so each case can inform our Standard Operating Procedures although our work is victim-centred and we are sensitive to the needs of the family regarding publication and legal use. They understand how important their information could be to other families and all have been happy to share. We also consider the human rights of people named in the files. We have solicitors and a barrister on the board so we can tap into professional guidance if the boundaries are fluid or the issues especially sensitive.
Can you speak to why you believe there is a need for the services that Paper Trail supplies? Why do you feel the cases you work on were not properly investigated the first time around?
Our families have been failed badly by the British state. The mechanisms that the state offered us to help deal with the past, like the Historical Enquiries Team or Legacy Investigation Branch, have failed. Many families believe that they were designed to fail. Nevertheless, some dared to hope but have suffered another blow. So, rather than helping, they have re-traumatised them. All the while, the British state is starving the legal services and community sector of funding and they are people who can offer the families support; The bodies promised by the Stormont House Agreement to deal with the legacy issues – such as the Historical Investigations Unit or Oral History Archive – are shelved; and the British state is hiding whole repositories or information and actively re-closing files.
Delay, denial and obfuscation are the order of the day because the state is trying to bury its dirty secrets. It was at war and the historical narrative is a weapon of that war. It was then and continues to be.
So information is still a battlefield and yet again our families are on the frontline.
In the case of Civilian C, you self-funded a trip to Kew, National Archives to trace the relevant documentation. How difficult has it been for you to access funding for your efforts?
Most of our trips are self-funded so time and money are our greatest enemies as we have little of each. Funding applications take a lot of time and they take me away from our investigations which are themselves so time-consuming. So I have had to be quite strategic with the time I have.
Legal Aid has also denied solicitors funding for Paper Trail’s services even though much of its work has resulted in history-making and case-winning information.
Nevertheless, we have secured an offer of a small amount of funding for a project called “Paper Trailers” which will teach family members how to target public archives and access freedom of information, and how to store and use the files we find.
We will also be gathering their stories and experiences for publication if they feel that they want to share.
You can also find more information about MacAirt’s journey on Transconflict.