Loughinisland: no officers guilty of wrongdoing but the headlines screamed ‘collusion’

More than two decades after the UVF murder of six Catholic men at Loughinisland, a number of police officers have finally broken their silence. Mark Rainey reports

Monday, 11th February 2019, 8:00 am
Updated Monday, 18th February 2019, 10:14 am
UVF gunmen killed six men at the Heights bar in Loughinisland in 1994

In 2016, the newspaper headlines screamed ‘police colluded with Loughinisland killers’ following the current ombudsman’s report on the atrocity at The Heights bar in Co Down.

This was despite no actual evidence that any officer committed any offence, or even breached the police code of conduct.

The highly contentious ‘collusion’ finding overturned a 2011 finding by previous ombudsman Al Hutchison that police had not colluded with those responsible.

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Victims of the 1994 Loughinisland massacre at The Heights bar. Top L-R: Patsy O'Hare, Adrian Rogan and Barney Green . Bottom L-R: Eamonn Byrne, Dan McGreanor and Malcolm Jenkinson. Image: Pacemaker Belfast

The later report intensified the vilification of the police officers involved in the murder investigation – across all sections of the media and even on the big screen in the film No Stone Unturned.

Exasperated by the avalanche of criticism, some of the officers have broken their 25-year silence.

In the coming days we will outline their views and experiences in a series of in-depth articles they believe with help dispel the “myths” that have grown up around the atrocity.

They have particular concerns around claims that vital evidential opportunities have been lost through negligence; that detectives protected informers; and that there was no desire to catch the killers.

In our series, key individuals will set the record straight on a number of issues.

We will also reveal how almost all of the original concerns around the actions of police – which helped spark the fresh ombudsman investigation in 2012 – have now been dismissed as bogus or unjustified, including the erroneous identification of the alleged getaway driver claimed to be a police agent.

With so many of those original allegations falling by the wayside, much of the ombudsman’s investigation focused on events up to 20 years earlier, mainly in the south Armagh area, and the importation of loyalist weapons more than six years before the Loughinisland atrocity.

One of those speaking publicly for the first time is the former police sub-divisional commander (SDC) Ronnie Hawthorne.

The retired chief superintendent said persistent claims that police lost potentially vital evidence when they disposed of the killers’ getaway car in 1995 are without foundation – as the Triumph Acclaim was “stripped of all forensic evidence” before its release by the forensic science service (FSNI).

Mr Hawthorne claims the car spent many months exposed to the elements at what is now known as FSNI (previously NIFSL) before being handed back to police as “forensically redundant”.

He said: “It was an old car, rusting badly with algae all over it.”

One former officer, who does not wish to be named, will explain how his career was effectively ended when the previous ombudsman authorised his arrest for what was described in the media as ‘colluding’ with the killers, only for the mystery witness involved to have her evidence dismissed many years later.

Another, former assistant chief constable Raymond White, will dismiss the frequently cited “ballistic trail,” between the Loughinisland murder weapon and an earlier loyalist arms importation, as a red herring.

Mr White explains how the claimed link, based on the VZ58 rifles having similar serial numbers, was an important element in the overall PONI finding of ‘collusion’ - despite the ombudsman’s own findings that the haul of VZ58 rifles seized in 1988 “had a wide range of often non-consecutive serial numbers”.

Among the main concerns of the former officers is their belief that the ombudsman has, by weaving together unconnected events, actually shown how little real evidence of wrongdoing there is concerning the Loughinisland investigation – one of many hundreds during the Troubles that did not lead to prosecutions.

The six Catholic men killed were: Adrian Rogan, 34; Daniel McCreanor, 59; Eamon Byrne, 39; Patrick O’Hare, 35; Barney Green, 87 and Malcolm Jenkinson, 52.

Former SDC Mr Hawthorne was one of a number of ex-police officers deeply affected by the barrage of allegations.

Although the stress of the attacks on his character have taken their toll, Mr Hawthorne has repeatedly stated that his biggest regret is that no one has been brought to justice.

However, he remains optimistic that advances in forensic science will eventually lead to convictions.

“There are still a lot of exhibits in forensics, even those taken from the car, waiting for some advancement,” he told the News Letter.

Mr Hawthorne said: “There is a lot of misinformation around Loughinisland, but my biggest regret is that there were no convictions.

“The families deserved convictions, particularly after Greysteel (in October 1993) when police were so quick in getting the perpetrators arrested.”

Mr Hawthorne, along with former ACC Raymond White, is involved in the NI Retired Police Officers’ Association on-going legal action, seeking to have the ombudsman’s ‘collusion’ finding overturned on the grounds that it is not sustainable in law.

Responding to claims he used a former RUC detective as ‘fodder’ to spark a fresh investigation, and then used the new probe to link a number of unconnected events to the Loughinisland murders, the police ombudsman (PONI) said he “stands by” his findings.

The NI Retired Police Officers Association has also posed a number of questions in relation to what forensic expertise was sought before PONI determined that the police handling of crime exhibits, including the killers’ getaway car, was negligent.

The ombudsman said: “The quashing of the first Police Ombudsman Loughinisland report and the publication of the second have already been the subject of extensive consideration by the court, as well as public comment. We stand by the findings of the final Police Ombudsman Loughinisland report.”

Speaking outside Belfast High Court in December 2012 following the quashing of the first report, the families’ spokesperson Emma Rogan said: “Al Hutchinson’s report is now in the bin. It is a good opportunity for Mr Maguire to put the record straight. Fingers crossed, hopefully in 2013 Mr Maguire will do what he says he’s going to do.”

• Tomorrow – how bogus evidence from a mystery witness breathed new life into the drive for a fresh ombudsman investigation

Also in the Loughinisland series: