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23 May 2019

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Loughlinisland killers still free as journalists remain on bail

• Journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey

Such is the appalling history of Britain’s colonisation of Ireland’s Six Counties in the north that it is impossible to count the travesties of justice visited on its population.

One of the latest would, if it were not so serious, qualify as farce. Two journalists who exposed the men responsible for carrying out the 1994 massacre of six men in Loughinisland, Co Down, were arrested while the killers continue to walk free.

Now Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey are on extended police bail awaiting the possibility of being charged. When they were lifted in August 2018, it was on the grounds that they had, allegedly, stolen a document. They have been warned that they could be accused of breaching two UK laws with potentially long jail sentences: the Official Secrets Act and the Data Protection Act.

In fact, their “crime” was in doing their job, and in doing it much more successfully than the RUC did theirs at the time of the murders or the PSNI have done theirs ever since. For the truth behind this travesty is truly shocking.

Let’s begin with the original crime. On the evening of 18 June 1994, a group of men were gathered in the Heights Bar (O’Toole’s) in the small village of Loughinisland to watch the Irish football team play Italy in the World Cup. They were in good spirits because Ireland had taken the lead and were on their way to winning when, behind them, two UVF members wearing boiler suits and balaclavas burst in.

One shouted “Fenian bastards” and opened fire at point blank range with an assault rifle, shooting eleven men in the back. Six died and five were wounded in the hail of sixty bullets. The gunmen then walked out and calmly got into a car. They did not trouble to go too far before abandoning the car, stuffing the boiler suits, balaclavas and gloves into a holdall, which they then tossed away, along with the rifle. They did not attempt to cover their tracks.

Loughlinisland scene

For an ordinary police force, it would have been relatively easy to identify the killers. The getaway car, which had, unusually, not been set on fire, was found soon after. It contained a hair follicle. The holdall and the rifle were also recovered. This physical evidence should have been a forensic scientist’s joy. Not this time, however, because the RUC was no ordinary force.

Despite a pledge by the then Northern Ireland Secretary, Patrick Mayhew, that the murderers would soon be caught and a promise by a senior RUC officer to the wife of one of the victims that his officers would leave “no stone unturned until we get the perpetrators,” nothing of any consequence happened.

Years passed as the friends and relatives of the six victims – Barney Greene, 87; Daniel McCreanor, 59; Malcolm Jenkinson, 52; Eamon Byrne, 39; Patrick O’Hare, 35 and Adrian Rogan, 34 – waited patiently for the police to act. It was not as if there was much of a mystery. Within days of the murders almost everyone in the area knew the identities of the prime suspects. But nothing happened, and the authorities scoffed at claims that the RUC’s lack of interest smacked of collusion.

Eventually, the relatives engaged a lawyer and one of the first shocks was the discovery that the police had allowed the getaway car to be destroyed. Relevant papers had also been destroyed. They were buoyed when an inquiry was launched by the police ombudsman, but dejected by the flawed report he produced in 2011. It not only featured an alphabet soup in order to avoid naming names – Person A, Police Officer 12 and so on – but also found that there was no evidence of collusion.

The disbelieving relatives and their lawyers fought on until a new ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, staged a fresh investigation. His report in 2016 was altogether more thorough, transparent and unequivocal. “My conclusion,” he wrote, “is that the initial investigation into the murders at Loughinisland was characterised in too many instances by incompetence, indifference and neglect.”

In his 160-page report no single sentence was more significant than this one: “I have no hesitation in unambiguously determining that collusion is a significant feature of the Loughinisland murders.”

According to Maguire’s report, collusion between the RUC special branch and the UVF was the reason that none of the killers had been charged. The branch had protected an informer, or informers, among the gang.

It was a vindication, of sorts, for the relatives because an official body had, at last, provided them with the truth. But justice did not follow: the findings were ignored by the police. Enter Belfast journalists Birney and McCaffrey along with a US-based documentary-maker and journalist, Alex Gibney.

They set out to do the job the police had not done. After getting hold of a key document leaked from the ombudsman’s office, McCaffrey then managed to obtain an anonymous letter sent by someone who admitted to involvement in the murder plot.

It named the three men responsible, stating that the gunman was Ronnie Hawthorn, his accomplice was Alan Taylor and their driver was Gorman McMullan. It transpired that the letter was written by Hawthorn’s wife, Hilary, who had witnessed the preparation for the killings.

No Stone Unturned

This documentary proof was at the heart of No Stone Unturned, the film made by Gibney in company with McCaffrey and Birney. They also persuaded a former RUC officer to speak on camera about the cynical way in which the force had investigated the murders, such as questioning suspects as a PR exercise rather than as serious attempt to solve the crime.

Overall, the film amounts to a comprehensive indictment of the RUC and its successor, the PSNI. For, despite the revelations in the film, the police chose to arrest McCaffrey and Birney rather than the men they identified as the murderers.

The arrests, which involved heavy-handed raids on their homes, were carried out by a UK police force, Durham Constabulary, at the PSNI’s request, supposedly to boost public confidence in the action.

A mystery immediately emerged. Police told the pair they had been arrested because of a complaint by the police ombudsman, Dr Maguire, about a theft. But the following day, he issued a statement saying neither he, nor anyone acting for him, had made such a complaint.

In response, the PSNI chief constable, George Hamilton, said: “We did have a statement of complaint. I have read it myself. It is not a comfortable place to arrest journalists, but we have an obligation under the law.Our actions have been lawful and proportionate.”

It is unclear whether he thinks it “lawful and proportionate” for his force to have failed to arrest the men identified in No Stone Unturned as the culprits for the Loughinisland massacre.

Thankfully, McCaffrey and Birney received swift and trenchant support from their trade union, the National Union of Journalists, which has staged a special screening of the film and views their treatment as an attack on press freedom. They were, after all, fulfilling the public interest by acting in the best journalistic tradition in shining a light on a dark misdeed.

In recent months, there has also been a growing sympathy for their plight. The Times in London has run a supportive piece, urging people to watch No Stone Unturned on Amazon. A motion tabled at parliament in Westminster calling on the PSNI to explain its actions has been signed by 22 MPs, including one Tory. The UK Labour Party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, was happy to be pictured with the pair.

It is possible to argue that the arrests of McCaffrey and Birney have been something of an own goal by the PSNI by drawing public attention to the substantive issues they have revealed. However, much more pressure would be generated if only Ireland’s and Britain’s public service broadcasters, RTÉ and the BBC, would agree to screen the film.

Roy Greenslade article pic

Roy Greenslade is an Honorary Visiting Professor at City, University of London

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