Loughinisland: Concerns that fuelled collusion fears proved baseless

Clara Reilly from Relatives for Justice speaking for the Loughinisland families at a press conference in Belfast
Clara Reilly from Relatives for Justice speaking for the Loughinisland families at a press conference in Belfast

Much of the commentary around the horrific murders at Loughinisland was based on conjecture and misinformation, MARK RAINEY reports

Convinced that police officers had ‘colluded’ with the UVF gang behind the 1994 Loughinisland murders, the bereaved families campaigned to have the 2011 ombudsman (PONI) report of Al Hutchinson quashed.

A police appeal for information published in the News Letter in June 1994

A police appeal for information published in the News Letter in June 1994

During an emotional press conference in Belfast on June 24, 2011 family members of the dead and injured disputed its findings that there was “insufficient evidence” of collusion.

One of the relatives said: “We feel that anyone who looks at the overwhelming evidence in this case with an open heart could come to no other conclusion than there was collusion in the murder of our loved ones.”

These concerns were instrumental in the drive to have a new, more wide-reaching investigation launched.

The main thrust of the families’ collusion concerns focused on eight areas – described in Dr Michael Maguire’s subsequent report as “being supportive of their complaint of collusion”.

But were these concerns ultimately found to have been based on fact or misinformation?

‘There was mismanagement by police, of witness evidence regarding a sighting of the Triumph Acclaim immediately following the attack at Loughinisland.’

* Investigative outcome: The ombudsman said - “The view, which would have been available to Witness U, was photographed and videoed. These enquiries suggest that Witness U could not have identified the driver of the car, which she stated passed her home on the night of the murders.”

There were concerns regarding the role performed by a named reserve constable, who lived in the area where the Triumph Acclaim was found by a farmer on the morning following the attack. (These concerns were raised by the same witness who claimed to have seen the getaway driver).

* Investigative outcome: Contrary to the witness’s claims that she saw the Triumph Acclaim car in 2003 at the home of the serving police officer, the ombudsman established that it had been sent for destruction at a local car dismantlers nine years earlier.

There was a delay in the deployment of a military helicopter, tasked with searching the area shortly after the attack at Loughinisland.

* Investigative outcome: The ombudsman stated - “My enquiries have not identified any anomalies or irregularities in the timings of either the deployment or flying time of the helicopter involved.”

That an RUC detective sergeant had sought to ‘protect’ a named individual, implicated in the chain of ownership of the Triumph Acclaim, from the murder investigation.

* Investigative outcome: Although there was criticism that the interaction between the two “was a contributory factor in the flawed approach to these enquiries,” the ombudsman concluded: “It is clear that the enquiries conducted by Police Officers 10 & 11 accelerated the process of identifying parties involved in the ownership of the Triumph Acclaim. It is also important to note that my investigation has not seen evidence or intelligence linking Person Q to the Loughinisland attack.”

That another named individual, who was subsequently granted a ‘Royal Prerogative of Mercy,’ was not charged despite police possessing information that he had been the driver of the getaway car used by the Loughinisland killers.

* Investigative outcome: The named individual was not, in fact, involved in the murders and that the royal pardon he received related to other offences not connected to Loughinisland.

That the destruction of the Triumph Acclaim by police in 1995 was a ‘corrupt’ and ‘collusive’ act, involving a RUC superintendent, who may be related to individuals implicated in the Loughinisland attack and that the failings identified in my predecessor’s public statement ‘lead to an absolute and irresistible conclusion of collusion’.

* Investigative outcome: The named officer had no family links to any of the suspects, and that the car spent six months with forensic scientists (NIFS) before being released back to police. Items submitted to NIFS are only handed back to police (as potential court exhibits) once all forensic opportunities have been exploited.

That individuals arrested on suspicion of involvement in the Loughinisland attack did not have forensic samples taken.

2011 report finding: “PONI has identified failings in the forensic strategy adopted by police in respect of the recovered samples. There is no evidence that these failings undermined the enquiry into the murders at The Heights Bar.”

2016 report finding: “Police failed to pursue efficiently relevant lines of enquiry; failed to make timely arrests of suspects; failed to consider linked incidents; and failed to develop and implement a coherent forensic strategy.”

There was a failure by police to make prompt arrests despite the early availability of related intelligence.

2011 report finding: By 18 July (four weeks after murders) information on the main suspects had been collated and an “arrest strategy” devised, with six persons arrested and several items sent for forensic examination.

2016 report finding: “The failure to conduct early intelligence-led arrests was particularly significant and seriously undermined the investigation into those responsible for the murders.”