Loughinisland: Officers stung by ‘baseless’ claims of negligence
Former police commander for the Loughinisland area Ronnie Hawthorne launched legal proceedings after being accused of “negligence” by the police ombudsman (PONI) in his 2016 report on the UVF atrocity.
Although not directly involved in the 1994 murder investigation, the then RUC superintendent was singled out for particular criticism over his alleged role in the disposal of the killers’ getaway car.
However, as a result of the legal action, a judge would ultimately conclude that Mr Hawthorne “suffered unjustified severe public criticism” and all references to the retired officer were removed from the PONI report.
Mr Hawthorne has always maintained the Triumph Acclaim vehicle was treated no differently from any other vehicle following a thorough forensic examination – disposed of, following consultation with senior investigators, when storage capacity became an issue.
Mr Hawthorne told the News Letter he believes the ombudsman’s “groundless” finding of negligence “must have had an adverse impact on the Loughinisland families in raising unwarranted concerns.”
He added: “Especially when the report could have calmed their fears by emphasising the work already done by the Forensic Service in preserving those parts of the car that actually revealed forensic traces, and now or in the future could yield crucial evidence as to the vile UVF perpetrators of the heinous murders.”
Six Catholic men were shot dead at The Heights bar in the Co Down village on the evening of June 18, 1994. No one has even been charged or convicted in relation to the murders.
Mr Hawthorne has been shocked at the persistent attempts to tarnish the reputations of former police officers, however, his greatest concern is for the families of the victims.
“My biggest regret is that there were no convictions,” he said.
“That no one has been convicted. The families deserved convictions, particularly after Greysteel (in October 1993) when police were so quick in getting the perpetrators arrested.
“There was a lot of optimism at the start that we would get the convictions. There is material in storage at the minute that is maybe five or ten years short of producing evidence that could convict somebody.
“That material is being held securely, so in the future there is that possibility that if DNA techniques advance that little bit further you could get a conviction.
“I’m told there is one piece of evidence in particular that is close to identifying a certain individual.”
Mr Hawthorne said he always enjoyed good relations with all sections of the south Down community and this continued in the aftermath of the UVF attack.
“I attended every single wake of the Loughinisland victims, I attended every single funeral in uniform. I went to the first anniversary, which was a roadside vigil and I went to the ten-year anniversary mass after I had retired from the police,” he said.
“I was very warmly received in every house [of the victims’ families]. “
Mr Hawthorne went on to say: “Regarding those who were murdered, they were all totally innocent. All hard-working decent people, there is no doubt about that.
“And it wasn’t even what some people would call a ‘republican pub’. It was a pub in a predominately Catholic area. The majority of its patrons would have been Catholic but a few Protestants would drink in it, including an off-duty police officer.”
The former senior officer is of the firm belief that the stress of the ombudsman’s investigation, and the public commentary around that investigation, took its toll on his own family.
“Within nine months of the ombudsman investigators arriving at my door my wife passed away with cancer. The distress definitely added to that.
“My mother died a couple of months after my wife died, also of cancer,” he said.
“I lived in Ballynahinch for 30-odd years, including over the course of all this, and everybody knew who officer X, Y or Z was in that report.
“Some people going around the town would look the other way when they saw me.
“My three daughters are very supportive, but I know they were very worried about what the report was going to say about their daddy. And there was great relief when I was exonerated,” Mr Hawthorne added.