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Ireland risked a PR disaster by billing for post mortems following the Air India 747 bombing

The bombing of Air India Flight 182 off the coast of Cork in June 1985 dropped Ireland into the middle of a humanitarian disaster recovery operation.

air india Source: National Archives 2016/22/203 & 204

ON 23 JUNE 1985, an Air India Boeing 747 bound for Delhi from Toronto exploded some 120 miles off the coast of Cork killing all 329 people on board (mostly Canadian and Indian citizens).

The explosion was the result of a radio bomb installed in a piece of onboard luggage. It was the deadliest terrorist attack involving an airliner prior to the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York City, and (occurring as it did in Irish airspace) it dropped Ireland right into the middle of a humanitarian recovery effort.

That recovery would take some weeks, and Cork was the designated base of operations.

The Irish Navy and Defence Forces, emergency services and gardaí were naturally enough drafted in to help with the effort.

This need for manpower came at a time Ireland was strapped firmly within a recession.

And according to papers released by the National Archives under the 30-year rule, it led to some difficult decisions for Ireland’s diplomatic officials.

1985-06-10_VT-EFO_Air_India_EGLL The Boeing 747 involved in the disaster, known as the Emperor Kanishka, pictured just two weeks before the bombing Source: Wikimedia Commons

Post mortems

Of the 329 people who died when the jetliner was blown out of the sky, 132 bodies were recovered (one body was found a full four months after the crash).

This led to an enormous strain on Cork’s emergency services, and on Cork University Hospital which was where the post mortems were taking place (as it happened, at least two of the victims were found to have drowned, despite the bombing having taken place while the aircraft was cruising at 31,000 feet).

All this work had to be billed for.

Source: Documentary NetHD/YouTube

But in April 1986, 10 months after the disaster, an internal and secret communiqué issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs suggested the department’s Indian embassy in New Delhi “would not favour” billing the Indian government for post mortem services as to do so “could undo goodwill obtained”:

india1 Source: National Archives 2016/22/204

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Per the communiqué, that approach was inspired by the fact that no other country involved in the salvage operation had billed the Indian authorities for such work, at least not at that time.

Other bills were indeed submitted to the Indian ambassador at his Leeson Park residence in Dublin, including an expense of £79,877 incurred by the deployment of the Irish naval ships LÉ Eithne and LÉ Aoife in the recovery of bodies.

Other expenses included the overtime necessary for Irish emergency personnel, the hiring of technicians such as metallurgical experts, and the rental of a 25-ton crane to aid in the recovery effort.

india5 Source: National Archives 2016/22/204

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It seems the post mortem expenses, which came to £15,274 (and thus were dwarfed by some of the other costs incurred in the recovery operation) were seen as a particularly thorny issue.

Whether or not the Irish government did ask for remuneration for the (highly-specialised) work isn’t clear – on 11 April it was certain that a bill had made its way through to the Irish embassy in New Delhi but that at that point it was merely expected that “the Indian authorities will be asked to foot the bill”. One week later the secret communiqué detailed above argued against doing so.

Quite apart from the enormous human tragedy, it seems the entire timeline may have been a diplomatic nightmare for the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

Site visit

AIR INDIA BOEING 747 CRASH Wreckage from the disaster bearing the Air India insignia is photographed floating in the Atlantic Ocean Source: PA


Air Crash wreckage A body is brought ashore Source: PA Archive/PA Images

On 28 August 1985, some two months after the disaster,  the DFA granted approval for the return of certain items of jewellery and clothing found on some of the bodies to their loved ones:

The Department of Justice have now confirmed that they would have no objection to the return of the items in question, which are in the custody of the gardaí at Cork, to the next-of-kin of the victims.

india3 Source: National Archives 2016/22/203 & 204

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One of the most common entreaties contained within the archives are those of the victims’ relatives asking to be allowed to visit the crash site to gain a sense of closure for their loss.

“We are two unfortunate fathers who lost our beloved teenage son and two medical student daughters, respectively, in the Air India tragedy last June,” reads one such letter written to Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Barry in March 1986.

In our condemned state of despair, all of us feel an excruciating need to go to the crash site to feel close to our loved ones for one last time, and to perform the still pending last rites of the departed, on the first death anniversary, in the vicinity where the remains lie.

list Garda list of identified victims Source: National Archives 2016/22/203 & 204

While a ceremony and crash memorial were commissioned for the anniversary of the disaster in 1986, it seems a visit to the crash site itself was not practicable.

For starters, the accident happened some 120 miles off the Irish coast in the Atlantic Ocean.

Logistically and cost-wise, no government (of the three involved – India, Ireland, and Canada) could see how this could be accommodated.

“I was told that the Canadian Embassy in Dublin had also contacted Irish Continental Lines who had advised that such a trip could take a total of 20 hours, and would require a large ferry type vessel which would be difficult to obtain at that time of year,” a communiqué to the Irish ambassador to India read on 5 March 1986.

The official with whom I spoke said that they had done their best to dissuade the families from the idea of a boat trip but to no avail.

Media management

The handling of the giant influx of Canadian and Indian citizens (together with the presence of the world’s media) was an ongoing headache for the department at the time.

At least three relatives were expected to arrive in Ireland for every victim of the disaster, so some 1,000 visitors in total.

india4 Source: National Archives 2016/22/203 & 204

A confidential telex sent by the DFA representative in Cork (sent with the help of Jury’s Hotel) to headquarters in Dublin after the crash suggested that given the scale of expected arrivals the biggest problem faced was the “management of relative influx”.

It might be unfortunate if there were no DFA presence in event of unpleasant incident in Cork, especially as perception of our visitors is that things have been handled very well by all Irish agencies to date.

One major concern was that “some of the incoming relatives are arriving with clothing totally unsuited to our climate”.

Have suggested in low key way to Air India that they advise their passengers of difference Irish/Indian climatic conditions.

In the end, Irish efforts at a time of desperate sadness seem to have been more than sufficient for the satisfaction of the bereaved – in the archives Canada and India repeatedly express their gratitude to Ireland and its emergency services concerning the assistance given in recovering the victims of the disaster:

lord mayor Source: National Archives 2016/22/203 & 204

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“It is with deep admiration that I write to express gratitude to the residents of Cork for the assistance offered to the families and friends of the Air India Flight victims,” a letter from Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in July 1985, just three weeks after the tragedy, to the Lord Mayor of Cork reads.

The generosity of time that they have given so freely and their humanitarian spirit have been a true source of comfort to all those who suffered the sudden loss of loved ones.
I know that all Canadians share the sense of the overwhelming human tragedy of the victims of Flight 182, but they have also been touched by the way the residents of Cork have opened up their hearts to absorb the grief of this painful human experience.

Read: 1986: The levels of radioactive material in Irish water, milk and vegetables following Chernobyl

Read: ‘A punishment from God’s own hand’ – the Irish got Biblical in their objections to 1985′s contraception law

See National Archives 2016/22/203 & 204

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