On June 18 1994, six men were brutally murdered as they sat having a drink in their local pub. They were watching Ireland play Italy in the soccer World Cup in the Heights Bar, Loughinisland – a small village in County Down, Northern Ireland.
Their only crime that night was that they were all Catholic, although their killers would not have known that as the Heights has always been a mixed bar and there were Protestants in the bar that day.
Two members of the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), wearing boiler suits and balaclavas, entered the bar and opened fire indiscriminately with automatic weapons.
Six innocent civilians – Adrian Rogan 34, Barney Green 87, Eamon Byrne 39, Dan McCreanor 54, Malcolm Jenkinson 54, and 35-year-old Patsy O’Hare – were killed in the massacre. Five others were injured including barman, Aidan O’Toole, whose family owns the bar.
No-one has ever been charged in connection with the murders and the families maintained a dignified silence for more than a decade, fearing that to speak out publicly might jeopardise the police investigation. Clare Rogan, whose husband Adrian was killed in the attack, was assured by senior Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers at the wake of her husband that they would leave ‘no stone unturned’ in the hunt for his killers.
By 2005, however, the families had become frustrated, believing there was no proper police investigation into the murders. They hired a solicitor, Niall Murphy, and investigative journalist Barry McCaffrey interviewed Clare and her daughter Emma, who was eight years old at the time of the attack and is now a Sinn Féin MLA in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Together they exchanged information and began to seek answers to many unanswered questions.
What they discovered was truly appalling. The gunmen’s getaway car, which had been found in a field a few miles away the day after the attack, sat in a police yard for years before being crushed in a scrapyard. Few of those arrested in connection with the killings had their DNA taken. Vital files were destroyed due to supposed ‘asbestos contamination’. Police transcripts of initial interviews with suspects in the murders miraculously disappeared. A litany of inconsistencies in police reports convinced the families that there was collusion between the police and the loyalist paramilitaries.
They made a complaint to the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, Al Hutchinson. Although his report, released in 2011, detailed staggering facts about the case – evidence was destroyed, DNA links to the weapons used were mishandled and a police informant had been involved in the sale of the getaway car – it found insufficient evidence of collusion.
The families strongly disagreed with Hutchinson’s conclusions and his report was so widely condemned that he stood down from his role as Ombudsman. The families launched a lawsuit to have his findings overturned and Hutchinson’s successor as Ombudsman, Dr. Michael Maguire, agreed at the High Court that Hutchinson’s report should be quashed. Maguire and his team began a new investigation in 2013. He published his findings in 2016, twenty-two years after the Loughinisland massacre. It was a damning report. He stated in his presentation of the report to the families that he had ‘no hesitation in saying that collusion was a significant element in relation to the killings in Loughinisland’.
Dr Maguire also stated that police were actively watching the murder suspects in the hours before the attack on June 18, 1994. It is a matter of fact, reported by Dr Maguire, that the suspected killers were tipped off by a police officer that they were about to be arrested the following day (August 1994).
The families finally had the truth about what happened on that awful night twenty–two years earlier. Now they were seeking justice and accountability.
In 2017, a powerful and award–winning documentary film by Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney was released. ‘No Stone Unturned’, produced by Trevor Birney and painstakingly researched by journalist Barry McCaffrey, investigates the killings and unveils a litany of corruption involving the police, loyalist paramilitaries and British army.
Unlike the Ombudsman’s report, the film reveals the identities of the main suspects in the murders. Despite the getaway car being found yards away from the main suspect’s family home within hours of the attack, that house was never searched. Despite being the primary suspect in the attack, the leader of the killer gang was not arrested until two months after the massacre. This even though he was named as the main suspect within 12 hours of the killing. He and other members of the gang were all members of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), a regiment of the British army.
The evidence uncovered in the film reveals that there was at least one police informer within the murder gang and that police had known within hours who the main suspects were. The film reveals how the main suspect’s wife had twice contacted police to identify her husband as the ring leader of the gang. The documentary also includes an interview with one of the detectives involved in the murder investigation who claims that police had prior knowledge of the Loughinisland attack and that while questioning the main suspect, a police officer had actively encouraged him to murder a named republican living in south County Down. The film asks serious questions about why still, almost twenty-five years on, no one has been charged in relation to the Loughinisland massacre.
There was a sinister twist to the case in August 2018 when the film’s producer, Trevor Birney and journalist Barry McCaffrey were arrested and accused of theft, handling stolen goods, breaching the Official Secrets Act and breach of data protection laws. They were questioned at PSNI Musgrave Street Serious Crime Suite, Belfast, for 14 hours. Although they have not been charged with any offence, they have been held on police bail since and must give police three days’ notice when they intend to leave Northern Ireland. They deny any wrongdoing. Barry McCaffrey, commenting on his arrest said:
“We believe that our arrests were politically motivated and designed to intimidate and threaten journalists not to report on public interest issues regarding the state’s involvement in the murder of its own citizens. When you are arrested at 7am and dozens of armed police officers swarm through your home it is deliberately designed to be intimidating and frightening. We were initially refused access to our solicitors. We were forced to strip, dress and wash in front of armed offices wearing body cameras. We were held in isolation in separate cells used for terror suspects and suspected killers for hours on end. Throughout the 14 hours we were not allowed to speak to or see each other. We were not given access to the open air, we were not offered reading material, exercise or fresh food. We were forced to give finger prints, DNA and had mugshots taken. Within an hour of our arrest a police press statement was released accusing us of theft and putting people’s lives at risk. Our personal and professional reputations were deliberately destroyed from that moment”.
When I asked Barry what effect his arrest has had on his family he told me:
“Our arrests have had a major detrimental impact on our families. It is utterly traumatic for children and loved-ones to have had to witness us being arrested for reporting on what has been accepted as state collusion. Our entire personal and professional lives have been deliberately and cynically destroyed by a state that chose to go after journalists rather than the killers”.
The film’s director, Alex Gibney, tweeted that they had been arrested for ‘good, hard-hitting journalism’. They have received huge support from the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) which has actively lobbied and campaigned on their behalf. Gerry Carson, Chair of the Irish Executive of the NUJ said:
“The arrests are very worrying for those journalists who work in the field of investigations, indeed for journalists everywhere. The two arrested simply produced a documentary which asked crucial questions of the police and those involved with truth, justice and transparency. The film asked questions which required answers and accountability. In response the PSNI arrest the two key journalists, who not only asked questions but who gave answers which shame the police of the time – the RUC. The PSNI based their actions on the alleged theft of documents from the Office of the NI Ombudsman. A theft which the Ombudsman’s office claim was never made by the office. So instead of seeking out the killers of the six massacred at Loughinisland, the PSNI arrest the film makers. In essence an attack on journalists and the freedom of the press, actions which are condemned firmly by the NUJ”.
They have received support from journalistic colleagues right across the world. They have received huge support from dozens of trade unions and NGOs, particularly Amnesty International and the Campaign for the Administration of Justice (CAJ). The journalists have been invited to talk about their case in the Irish Parliament, the Dáil, in Dublin, the House of Commons in London and in Manchester, Wales, Scotland, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington to name but a few. They have met with the Irish government, all local parties including the DUP, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance and PUP. They have received personal messages of support from judges, police officers, MPs (Conservative, SNP, Labour, SDLP, Sinn Féin), TDs and church leaders.
The journalists must return for questioning in March 2019.
If charged, it is likely that they will rely on Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights 1998 for their defence. This Act states that:
Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.
The legality of the arrest of the two journalists will now be the subject of a legal review. A police press release issued at the time stated the investigation was triggered when the Ombudsman reported the theft to police.
That claim has now been directly contradicted by the Ombudsman’s office itself, which has insisted: “We did not make a complaint of theft”.
Barry McCaffrey’s solicitor, John Finucane, has advised me that the judicial review is scheduled for February 4 2019. In a statement he said:
“The police have serious questions to answer, and it adds to my client’s view that his arrest was designed to silence investigative journalism, not investigate a crime which now appears not to have even been reported…. PONI’s clarification will add to the legal challenge Barry McCaffrey has initiated against the police”.