By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Amid renewed controversy about the mystery surrounding Ireland’s worst air disaster, Public Enterprise Minister Mary O’Rourke this week discussed the 30-year-old incident with the outgoing British ambassador.
But the meeting between O’Rourke and Dame Veronica Sutherland Tuesday produced little in the way of new initiatives.
Sutherland indicated afterward that the British government is willing to make present-day British crash investigators available to the Irish side for discussions.
However, there is to be no new British inquiry into the crash of the St. Phelim almost 31 years ago. And the British government remains adamant that there was no British involvement in the death plunge of the aircraft.
In 1968, the Aer Lingus Viscount plane mysteriously plunged into the Irish Sea near the Tuskar Rock lighthouse off County Wexford killing all 61 people on board.
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A group of relatives of the dead — who came from Ireland, Britain, America, Switzerland and Belgium — has been pressing for a new inquiry into the reason for the crash.
Only 14 of the bodies were recovered at the time. Relatives had hoped that previously classified documents would be released in Dublin and London on Jan. 1 under the 30-year rule, but the only file to emerge was an Irish presidential file that contained details of letters of condolence.
Meanwhile, conspiracy theories surrounding the circumstances under which the plane dropped out of the sky have been renewed by the release of a document by the relatives.
The document, which has been dismissed as a fake, was apparently obtained by a detective working for the family of the only American passengers on board Flight 712, Joseph and Mary Gangelhoff. Supposedly one of several from the British military to the U.S. State Department, the document claims the plane’s transponder failed, a Sea Dart surface-to-air missile was launched from a British ship and hit the plane, British ships "controlled" the wreckage, and any bodies recovered that did not show death caused by impact with water were removed and cremated to hush up what had happened.
The document had been circulated in the past and dismissed as a hoax, but its re-release and the meeting between O’Rourke and Sutherland have refocused attention on the theory that the plane collided with something that caused it to spiral into the sea.
An inquiry failed to establish the cause of the tragedy, but one theory put forward was the possibility of a mid-air collision. The official report stated: "The conclusion that there was another aircraft involved is inescapable. No aircraft has been reported missing, but there remains the possibility that an unmanned aircraft, either a drone target or a missile, might have been there."
The British have consistently denied any drone or missile was in the air on the Sunday of the crash in March 1968. British embassy press officer Andy Pike said that despite extensive inquiries, they had not found a "scrap of evidence to suggest British involvement." He described suggestions of cremation as "absolutely groundless and pretty outrageous."
Pike said that after their investigations, they were "able to say with confidence that it was nothing to do with the British. The idea that we took bodies and burned them is pretty abhorrent." He said claims in the past in documents that bodies had been cremated had been investigated and they were found to have been forged. "It was quite clearly untrue," he said.
David O’Beirne, son of the plane’s pilot, who was 20 months old when his father, Barney, died, said the document purporting to show there had been a coverup should be refuted in detail if it is not genuine.
He appealed for anyone to come forward with information or documents that might throw new light on the tragedy. "We only want to know what happened to our relatives," he said, adding that the document was supposedly part of a CIA file obtained by a private investigator working for Bonnie Gangelhoff.
Jerome McCormick, who was 20 when his brother Neal died in the tragedy, said that if there is nothing to hide, why were documents not being released. He appealed to Prime Minister Tony Blair to lift any constraints imposed by the Official Secrets Act for anyone who may have information.