On the evening of 18 June 1994, the Republic of Ireland beat Italy in one of the opening games of the World Cup in Giants Stadium, New Jersey. The surprise victory unleashed wild celebrations in homes, bars and streets on both sides of the Irish border, precipitating a short-lived but intense bout of World Cup fever. In the village of Loughinisland in County Down, Northern Ireland, though, the night is enshrined in local memory for very different reasons.
About five minutes after Ray Houghton scored the single deciding goal, three men in balaclavas burst into the Heights Bar and opened fire on those who had gathered there to watch the game. Eleven of the 24 men present were shot in the back; six of them died outright. The oldest, Barney Greene, was 87; the youngest, Adrian Rogan, was 34. A survivor described bodies “piled on top of each other on the floor” of the small public bar. Other witnesses said that they heard the sound of laughter as the gunmen ran from the scene.
A few hours later, as distraught relatives were still arriving at the pub in search of their loved ones, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a notoriously ruthless loyalist paramilitary group, claimed responsibility for the murders. Although it was one atrocity among many in the Troubles, the Loughinisland attack is different for two reasons: it occurred just a few months before the ceasefire declared by paramilitaries on both sides; and it remains unsolved despite a welter of evidence identifying the suspects and linking them to members of the security forces.
The Loughinisland massacre is one of several murders that hint at the full extent of the collusion between the British state and loyalist paramilitaries in the province over the course of the Troubles. The failure to bring the suspects to justice is seen by many campaigners and activists as another attempt to prevent the evidence for that collusion from ever seeing the light of day – so damaging would it be to the reputation of both the security forces and the British government who sanctioned their actions.
“I didn’t want to pretend to be somebody who knew the last word about the Troubles,” says Alex Gibney, director of No Stone Unturned, a new documentary about the Loughinisland killings. “To me, the point of entry was the murder: what happened and why was there a cover-up? That may seem like a simple perspective, but it has a much bigger resonance both inside and outside of Northern Ireland. The state is meant to protect all the citizens in its jurisdiction, so what happens if the state is either enabling or covering up crimes?”
Gibney is known for taking on shady institutions and his approach – sheer doggedness underpinned by deep research – has earned him a reputation as one of the finest documentary film-makers of our time. He was Oscar nominated for his 2005 documentary, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and made the riveting Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief in 2015. His range is impressive – he has tackled WikiLeaks and al-Qaida, James Brown and Frank Sinatra.
In person, he exudes a quiet intensity that suggests he is simultaneously engaged and a little impatient to be elsewhere. No Stone Unturned is, it turns out, a more personal project. It was born out of his seemingly instinctive connection with the people of Loughinisland, whom he first met years before when filming a short film entitled Ceasefire Massacre. “It was this small village that still seems traumatised by the one terrible event that had happened there during the entire 30 years of the Troubles. And nobody will pay them the attention they deserve.”
At first, Gibney, a New Yorker, placed the atrocity in a distinctly American context. “I had it all wrong,” he says, shaking his head ruefully, “I initially thought of it as an anomalous attack by a wacko who, for some warped reason, carried out this dreadful crime. But then, I kept thinking, why this town, why that pub? That’s what drew me in, but the more we investigated, the more we saw that the beautiful countryside all around the village was crawling with nastier elements who were prepared to do these heinous things to innocents.”
No Stone Unturned begins dramatically with a chilling reconstruction of the killings. We see the full horror, in slow motion, the disposal of the murder weapons in a field nearby, before the cinematic evocation suddenly gives way to a montage of actual crime scene photographs. It is a heart-jolting juxtaposition made all the more real by the fractured eye-witness testimony of Clare Rogan, wife of victim Adrian, who recalls “bodies, the smell, the smoke lingering, broken glass … a scene of carnage”.
The morning after the killings, Patrick Mayhew, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, faced the local television cameras, addressing the killers directly in his patrician tones with the warning: “The RUC never give up – you will be caught and spend long years in jail.” Twenty three years later, that promise has yet to be fulfilled.
As shocking as the killings are, Gibney’s real subject is the aftermath. He finds out early on who the suspects are and slowly and painstakingly accrues the evidence that ties them to the murders. In the process, he lays bare the full extent, and the terrible cost, of the murky contracts made between the British authorities and the paramilitary killers they recruited as agents.
One of the strengths of his film is that we share Gibney’s mounting sense of disbelief as he interviews various insiders who catalogue the evidence of a cover-up: the botched forensic investigations, the disappearance of written records of interrogations, the evidence that has been mislaid. There is a sense throughout that the killers and the police officers complicit in their murderous activities acted with what can only be described as a casual arrogance, so confident were they that their collusion would not be uncovered.
One detective describes the evidence as “a forensic goldmine”, citing how the gang abandoned the stolen car in a field close to where one of them lived without even bothering to burn it. The weapons were found soon afterwards having been thrown over a hedge nearby. Bafflingly, the police destroyed the car soon afterwards and later, when lawyers asked for the transcripts of the related interrogations, they were told that they too had been destroyed following a supposed asbestos scare in the building where they were stored. A former RUC officer from Liverpool, still sounding bemused, recounts how one suspect was released after he made a verbal promise to his interrogators that he would not carry out any more killings.
For Gibney, this on-camera testimony must all have seemed almost too good to be true. “Well, yes and no,” he says, pausing to gather his thoughts, “The thing is, the more you dig into the nature of their collusion, the darker it gets. One of the contributions the film makes is to put names to the players, not just the suspects but some of the police. There were decisions that were made not to pursue charges – even when they had one person confessing to a crime. Then, there was the whole issue of killings that were carried out by people who were operating as members of the security forces.” He pauses and shakes his head. “It was one of those situations in which everything became corrupt.”
Does he give any credence to the establishment view, as voiced in his film by the former secretary of state for Northern Ireland Tom King, that these difficult compromises were made in order to save lives; that the killers were rogue elements of the kind you would find in any conflict? He smiles ruefully. “One thing I have learned as a documentary film-maker is that we have a tendency when faced with horrific acts to say: ‘That was done by a bad person.’ The guards at Abu Ghraib were bad apples. So too were the UVF men who killed innocent Catholics. But, that’s the wrong part of the metaphor. They were part of a rotten barrel. When you make the barrel rotten, the apples rot, too. What I’m saying is, if you put people in those kinds of situations, they do bad things. And, not only that, but you also surround them with a context where it is now OK for them to do those bad things. That’s what happened here and that’s why there is this silence about the role of the state that until now has prevented the relatives from getting answers, from getting justice for their loved ones.”
There are many surprising moments in Gibney’s film, but none more so than when a local councillor, Patsy Toman, produces a handwritten letter he received from a woman in the wake of the murders. It reads like an apology written in a moment of emotional crisis, but in court would have been deemed an admission of guilt by association. She admits to being a party to the planning of the crime and to knowing all the suspects. Toman passed the letter on to the RUC at the time but, though the woman and her husband were taken in for questioning, both were released. Gibney names the husband as one of the killers and reveals that the man lives with his wife in the nearby village of Clough, a loyalist stronghold, where they run a cleaning business that also specialises in the extermination of pests.
What is truly chilling, though, is Toman’s reluctance to read the full text of the letter. He hesitates when he gets to the names of the killers, then hands the letter to Gibney, his silence telling of the climate of fear that attended the long years of the Troubles and that still hovers around Loughinisland. It transpires that Toman’s house had been the target of a UVF bomb attack the year before the pub killings. “If they came after me once, they’ll come after me again,” he tells Gibney.
Throughout the film, the dignified testimony of the survivors and relatives of the victims hits home with the full force of a collective trauma. Aidan O’Toole was just 15 years old and working as a part-time barman in the pub when the gunmen burst in. He was shot in the kidney as he ran for cover amid the bullets and breaking glass. Twenty three years later, his face is a landscape of pain and bewilderment.
“I was one of the lucky ones – if you can call it lucky,” he says, haltingly, struggling to hold back tears as he recounts the horror of that evening. Like the others, he still struggles to make sense of why the UVF chose his village as a target. “You would never have doubted anyone around here,” he says of the mixed community he grew up in, his use of the past tense an implicit acknowledgment that all has changed since that summer evening in 1994.
During the making of the film, the Northern Ireland police ombudsman Michael Maguire, who had quashed the results of a previous inquiry into the Loughinisland killings, announced his own findings, stating, “I have no hesitation in unambiguously determining that collusion is a significant feature of the murders.” Gibney’s film goes several stages further, naming the suspects and their enablers and, one suspects, proving considerable embarrassment to the British government, security services and the RUC.
What does he hope his documentary will achieve? He thinks about this for a moment. “There is no statute of limitations for murder as far as I know, so that the perpetrators be arrested. That was one of the motivations of naming them. But, it’s about more than that. People say: ‘We have peace in Northern Ireland now, why rake up the past?’ But, when you speak to the relatives and the survivors, you realise that the past is the present. It can never be put to rest when it is shrouded in silence and secrecy.”
- No Stone Unturned is released in cinemas on 10 November.
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Amal Clooney was appointed Special Envoy on Media Freedom as part of a British Government campaign to highlight assaults and restrictions on journalists across the globe. She has been asked to start with one case created by British forces.
International human rights lawyer Amal Clooney has been called upon to meet two arrested journalists in Northern Ireland as a matter of urgency after being appointed as a special envoy on media freedom by the British Government on Friday.
Amnesty International has called on Clooney to arrange an early meeting with Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey to discuss how they could face serious criminal charges for investigating collusion during The Troubles.
Clooney is one of the most acclaimed human rights lawyers in the world. Her high-profile clients include WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Hollywood actor George Clooney, who has Irish roots, is also her husband.
The lawyer has been asked to meet the two Irish journalists, who worked on an acclaimed documentary called “No Stone Unturned” with Oscar-winning film-maker Alex Gibney. Their arrests last August sent shock waves across Britain and Ireland.
They remain on bail until September of this year, 13 months after up to 100 police officers raided their homes and offices, seizing computers and documents, which the two men are campaigning to have returned.
Gibney’s film examined the massacre of six innocent soccer fans as they watched a World Cup game in a small Co Down pub in June 1994. It became known as the Loughinisland massacre and the families of the innocent men have never received justice, which is why Gibney took a strong interest after being alerted to their case.
The slaughter in a rural pub cast a huge shadow over the celebrations which followed the Republic of Ireland’s shock 1-0 victory over strong favorites Italy at the Giant’s Stadium in New Jersey.
Thousands of Irish people attended the game, which was described as a “home game” by IrishCentral founder Niall O’Dowd because the Irish fans outnumbered their rivals after traveling from all over the United States to cheer on the boys in green.
Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International said it would be ironic if the British Government, under Clooney’s direction, took a strong interest in human rights cases across the globe while ignoring concerns about press freedom much closer to home.
“We welcome the UK Government’s initiative to promote press freedom around the world. However, the UK must also address concerns here at home if it is to have credibility as an international champion for media freedom,” he said.
Birney and McCaffrey were arrested in August 2018 in connection with an alleged breach of the UK’s Official Secrets Act through the use of confidential documents about the police investigation into the massacre.
A 2016 report from the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland found that there had been collusion between the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Volunteer Force killers in relation to the killings.
The report backed up the claims of the victims’ families that the subsequent police investigation had been undermined by a desire to protect those responsible for the massacre.
Their arrests have raised concerns that journalists investigating cases of collusion in Northern Ireland would be hampered from carrying out their work.
In recent weeks a Netflix documentary about the Miami Showband massacre, a report about criminal charges in relation to the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry, and an inquest into the Ballymurphy massacre in Belfast have all shone a spotlight on allegations of British collusion with loyalist terrorists during The Troubles.
“The arrest of these widely-respected journalists has had a chilling effect on media across Northern Ireland, and we are in no doubt that press freedom is now at grave risk,” warned Corrigan on Friday.
His concerns have been echoed by Michelle Stanistreet, the General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) in London.
“This case is the biggest specific threat to press freedom in the UK at the moment,” she said Friday afternoon. “The arrest of two NUJ members and the on-going legal threats are an appalling abuse of power and should be a major concern to all journalists and everyone who cares about investigative journalism, human rights and civil liberties.”
On Friday, Clooney was appointed to act as British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s special envoy on media freedom as part of a British Government campaign to highlight assaults and restrictions on journalists across the globe.
Last year was the deadliest on record for journalists, with claims that 99 were killed, 348 detained, and 80 taken hostage by non-state groups across the globe.
Clooney has represented two Reuters journalists – Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo – who were convicted to seven years imprisonment last year under Myanmar’s colonial-era official secrets act and sentenced to seven years in prison.
“It has never been more dangerous to report the news. Targeting journalists undermines democracy and impedes our ability to hold the powerful to account and it allows countless human rights abuses to take place in the dark. Those with a pen in their hand should not feel a noose round their neck,” she said on Friday.
Following her appointment, she singled out India and Brazil as two large democratic countries where press freedom has been put at risk – as well as highlighting the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.
However, the irony was not lost in Northern Ireland on Friday that the British Government is asking an acclaimed lawyer to focus on press freedom across the globe while neglecting a very serious case involving two reporters much closer to home.
An attempt to silence Birney and McCaffrey with a gagging order last month, which would have prevented them from commenting on the case, was seen as a sinister move when there has been so much attention on the issues of collusion, Brexit, and the return of a hard border in recent weeks.
Many people in Co Down are shocked that the police in Northern Ireland allowed killers to get away with murder, but then put their resources into targeting journalists who tried to find out the truth about the atrocity.
“No Stone Unturned” revealed new evidence about the massacre at the Heights Bar in which Adrian Rogan (aged 34), Patrick O’Hare (35), Eamon Byrne (39), Malcolm Jenkinson (53) Daniel McCreanor (59) and Barney Greene (87) lost their lives.
All six men were sitting with their backs to the door, watching the football game, when two gunmen from the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) burst in and sprayed the premises with bullets.
The release of “No Stone Unturned” gave hope to the bereaved families that the people responsible would finally be brought to justice. Instead, they have seen the journalists who investigated the case for Gibney being raided, arrested, and threatened with criminal charges.