Harrowing depiction of the Loughinisland murders

Harrowing depiction of the Loughinisland murders

8 November 2017

THE toughest scene to watch came at the very start, but the most dramatic came at the end.

Shortly after the lights went down in Loughinisland GAC on Friday night, several hundred villagers who packed the hall for a special screening of No Stone Unturned saw gunmen pull down their balaclavas as a red Triumph Acclaim pulls up outside The Heights Bar. 

Cut to the pub, and a huge cheer goes up as Ray Houghton scores what was to be the winning goal in the Republic of Ireland’s World Cup opener against Italy. Men crowd around the tiny bar, enjoying the atmosphere and delighted that their team had scored after just 11 minutes in this vital match.

The door opens and two dark figures dressed in boiler suits step inside. As one holds the door open, the second, armed with a Czechoslovakian made VZ58 assault rifle, s to one knee, takes aim and opens fire. 

Alex Gibney, the award winning American director of No Stone Unturned, was careful not to include any gratuitous scenes of violence in the attack. There are no bullets striking bodies, no men hitting the floor, none of the blood and gore normally associated with Hollywood. But it is brutally shocking, nonetheless.

Instead Gibney focused closely on the eyes of the gunmen and on the rifle; in slow motion the trigger is pulled and in slow motion the spent cartridges are ejected onto the floor. It is up to the imagination of each individual to visualise the scene in the country bar after the gunmen leave having fired almost 30 rounds.

It as a tough scene for the audience and when the families of Barney Green, Adrian Rogan, Malcolm Jenkinson, Daniel McCreanor, Patrick O’Hare and Eamon Byrne saw it in a private screening several weeks ago many found it hard to watch.

Perhaps the saddest images in the film come shortly after the attack scene with archive footage of 87 year-old Barney Green — the oldest person to die in the Troubles — singing at a family gathering before going back to smoking his pipe.

Equally heartbreaking is the account of Adrian ‘Frosty’ Rogan’s wife, Clare, who had that day returned from holiday with their two young children, Emma and Tony. She rushed back to the bar and despite being advised not to go in, she pushed open the door. “What I saw will haunt me until the day I die,” she tells the film maker.

Aidan O’Toole, then a young member of the bar owning family, had been left in charge for the night as his father and so many others from the area were in Romania on a charity mission. He recalls there being around 15 in the bar when the gunmen came in and hearing the cracks of the rifle. He dived into a store but not before he was hit by the gunfire, one of five wounded and six murdered.

“You couldn’t have picked anyone more innocent,” he tells Gibney of the men who died that night. Later Aidan reveals how his life changed completely after the attack; he gave up darts and playing football and “just didn’t want to go out.”

The film uses extensive archive film footage and photographs of the scene outside the Heights Bar after the murders — ambulance men and police officers in the immediate aftermath, forensic experts and detectives the next day and the then Secretary of State, Patrick Mayhew, visiting the scene with his wife.

Mayhew directly addressed the killers when he addressed reporters outside saying: “You are going to be caught. The RUC never give up.” This statement is repeated towards the end of the film after Gibney examines what the Police Ombudsman last year declared amounted to police collusion over the deaths in Loughinisland.

The film replays the funerals of some of the six men, including the tears of Emma Rogan as she walks behind her father’s coffin, and hears from her mother, Clare, who received letters of condolence from many, including the Queen and the Pope.

Clare also recalls an RUC officer sitting in her home telling family members the police would leave no stone unturned. “I don’t believe they lifted a stone, let alone turned it,” she remarked.

Gradually, as the years fell away, the families began to realise something was wrong. The IRA ceasefire came six weeks after the Loughinisland killings, and such tragedies became something that wasn’t talked about.

But still the nagging doubts remained.

Eventually the families decided they had to take matters into their own hands.They formed the Loughinisland Justice Group and recruited solicitor, Niall Murphy, to fight their case. 

Meetings were arranged with senior police officers and it was during one of those meetings they were hit with a bombshell revelation — the car used by the killers, that had been recovered intact, had been destroyed. It had sat for a year behind Saintfield police station, along with other cars from traffic accidents, before being taken to a breaker’s yard.

Murphy was incredulous: “You destroyed the car; the largest physical piece of evidence and you destroyed it.”

Murphy also told of a opportunistic question he asked relating to the weapon used in the attack — the VZ58 rifle. When he asked the detectives if it had been part of a shipment delivered to Loyalists from South Africa he was astounded when the policemen confirmed it had been.

The families were now on a long battle to find the truth which led to what they hoped would be a damning report from the then Police Ombudsman, Al Hutchinson, who left them deflated when he failed to find evidence of collusion.

Another battle began that received a boost when the new Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, accepted, on the steps of the High Court, that his predecessor’s report should be quashed.

During these protracted battles another avenue was developing for the Loughinisland Justice Group. Murphy had, in 2005, approached film producer, Trevor Birney, a former UTV reporter who cut his teeth on the Impartial Reporter newspaper in Fermanagh, and suggested the killings would make a good film. Birney agreed and spent the next 12 years assembling a budget for the film and looking for a director with sufficient clout and reputation to get it noticed.

He found it in Alex Gibney.

Gibney began filming in 2016 in the drama/documentary style, mixing interviews and real life archive footage with dramatised scenes such as the harrowing murders in the Heights Bar.

He spoke to policemen involved in the investigation, such as former detective constable Jimmy Binns who reveals the RUC special branch told detectives the next day who “you would want to talk to.” Among the names were the three men now alleged to be the prime suspects in the murders

Binns describes the leader of the gang — identified as Person A by the Ombudsman — as a ruthless, dedicated serial killer. 

“In my mind he was just a terrorist. Just a hateful, and hating, bigot,” said Binns. “Killing a Catholic to him was like wiping a fly off his shoe and if I had got in his way I have no doubt he would have shot me too.”

Binns says it was two months before Person A was arrested and he recalls a bizarre interview when a fellow detective spent time trying to persuade Person A to murder an IRA man living in the area.

The documentary sets out how the Ombudsman’s report linked Person A and his UVF gang to the murder of Peter McCormick in the Thierafirth Inn, in Kilcoo on November 19, 1992, and the murder in Belfast of Catholic father, Martin Lavery, just a month later. Family members of both men were in the audience on Friday night to watch the film.

Research into the massacre received a massive boost when journalist, Barry McCaffrey, received documents leaked from the Ombudsman’s office revealing the identity of Person A and all the other men believed linked to the UVF gang.

One astonishing part of the two hour film deals with two telephone calls made by the wife of Person A to the RUC’s confidential telephone in which she reveals her husband was involved and names the other two members of the murder gang. Police say they recognised her voice because she worked in the canteen at Newcastle police station. The woman followed these calls up with a letter to former SDLP councillor Patsy Toman in which she again names the men, but crucially reveals she was aware of the planning for the attack on The Heights Bar.

Police appear to have treated the phone calls and the letter lightly believing it was the actions of an angry woman who at that time had fallen out with her husband.

There is a huge gap in the Ombudsman’s report, and consequently in the film, because the senior investigating officer refused to co-operate with the investigation. Even when McCaffrey tracked him down to his home in a small French village and eventually managed to speak to him, the officer refused to say anything.

A surprise in the film is the amount of co-operation given by the current Police Ombudsman, Michael Maguire, and his senior investigator, Phil Denison. Both are interviewed at length and feature in various segments throughout the film. When Maguire’s report was complete Gibney filmed him as he left his Belfast office, in his car on the way to Loughinisland and eventually revealing his findings of collusion to the relieved and emotional families. In what is likely to further weaken the already strained relations between the PSNI and the Ombudsman, Denison intimates the Ombudsman’s investigators had seen evidence there was at least one informer involved in the killings and poses the question: “Did the running of informers get out of control. This has haunted Loughinisland.”

The most dramatic scene in the film comes towards the end after Gibney reveals the identities of the men the Ombudsman believes carried out the murders.

One man moved to England and hasn’t been heard of since, one lives in Belfast and is a regular visitor to sex websites, but the leader of the gang, a man alleged to have murdered at least eight people, lives just four miles away from Loughinisland on the outskirts of Clough.

The members of the audience sat upright and leaned forward as footage of the man filled the screen unexpectedly, filmed by a private investigator. Ironically the film was shot in the nationalist Twinbrook area of west Belfast as the alleged killer worked as a contract cleaner and pest controller.

The man is seen standing alongside a white van, lighting a cigarette and pausing for a few moments before walking right past the hidden camera. It was electrifying cinema and the tension in the GAA hall was palpable. This wasn’t an outsider who travelled from afar to murder; he was a member of the very community he is alleged to have attacked, a man whose family home was a few miles up the road and who in the 23 years since the killings has set up and expanded a business and who now lives in an expansive house on the outskirts of Clough.

As Person A walks past the private investigator’s camera, Patrick Mayhew is back on screen again making his oft replayed address to the terrorists and promise to the community which has become a sad epitaph for the failed police investigation into the Loughinisland tragedy.

“The RUC never give up.”