Loughinisland investigation a sorry tale of incompetence, indifference and collusion
The RUC vowed no stone would be left unturned in the hunt for the UVF men who murdered six Catholics at The Heights Bar in 1994. But the subsequent probe became a running sore that's remembered with anger to this day, says Alban Maginness
I remember well the evening of June 18, 1994. It had been a gloriously warm day and the evening sun stretched itself with a rare generosity. We were having a small SDLP fundraiser in my home and people were in great spirits, the Irish World Cup football team were doing exceptionally well and there were definite signs that an IRA ceasefire was on its way.
However, the happy political and social atmosphere was shattered by the emerging news that six people had been killed and five others seriously wounded in a pub shooting in the quiet little village of Loughinisland in Co Down.
Instinctively, we knew that it was a loyalist paramilitary attack on a small Catholic community, probably intended to destabilise our snail's pace progress to peace. It was, on the face of it, a senseless outrage, but in reality it was a ruthless and calculated provocation designed to disrupt the political attempts on all sides to bring about peace.
The Irish World Cup team fans in the Heights Bar were the innocent victims of a ruthless decision by the UVF to cause an unspeakable outrage that hurt and hurts deeply - even today. No one was caught and charged with the murders. Justice was denied to the victims and their families, and that rankles deeply in the community's memory.
The recent report by Dr Michael Maguire, the Police Ombudsman, on this outrage is a damning indictment of the RUC's investigation.
Disturbingly, the report says that, within a relatively short period of time, the police had reliable intelligence on who committed the murders. In addition, the police recovered the getaway car, the murder weapons and the clothing believed to have been used by the killers. Yet, surprisingly, nobody was caught.
The Police Ombudsman's report is distressing, as he comes to a number of clear and worrying conclusions. Not least, he concluded that this investigation was "constrained by a refusal of a number of key people to speak to his investigators".
Given the passage of 22 years, one would have expected, at this point in time, that former officers would have been man enough - or contrite enough - to cooperate with the Police Ombudsman.
Sadly, they did not, and this was inexcusable and is a huge disappointment to all, especially the relatives of the victims, who deserve better from ex-policemen.
It is outrageous that former officers in the RUC failed to assist in this high-profile murder investigation by the Police Ombudsman. The suspicion that they are still hiding crucial information will remain - given their uncooperative attitude to the investigation.
But perhaps the most chilling aspect of the report deals with the separate, but intimately related, smuggling of weapons by loyalist paramilitaries in 1988.
The fact is that the VZ58 rifle used in the Loughinisland incident was part of a shipment brought into Northern Ireland in 1988. Thus, there was a clear connection between the arms importation and the killings.
What is outrageous is that there were police informants engaged in the arms smuggling, but, despite this, the police failed to stop, or retrieve, all the weapons.
The Police Ombudsman says that this was a "significant intelligence failure". I think that this conclusion is an understatement.
Surely, if the RUC knew a dangerous consignment of guns was being procured by loyalists, why did they not act decisively to prevent this happening? The police were there to uphold the law and not allow the law to be flouted, or undermined. But, as a result of their failure regarding the arms shipment, the RUC opened the way for this dreadful attack and other terrorist activity to take place.
Unbelievably, in this sorry tale, the police investigation into the murders was characterised, in too many instances, by incompetence, indifference and neglect. The failure to conduct early intelligence-led arrests was particularly significant and seriously undermined the investigation. All of this after the RUC promised that no stone would be left unturned in the hunt to find the killers. Clearly, some stones were left unturned and the killers were never found.
The Police Ombudsman also concluded, quite correctly in my opinion, that there was collusion. This was long-suspected, but is now finally confirmed.
He based this on Judge Smithwick's broad, but not unreasonable, definition, to include omission, or failure to act, as well as the commission of an act.
Dr Maguire, therefore, not unreasonably, concluded that the protection of informants by Special Branch, through wilful acts as well as also turning a blind eye, catastrophic failures in the police investigation and the destruction of exhibits and documents, collectively amounted to collusion.
Quite frankly, a thoroughly depressing report for the victims and their families, who sought justice for those innocent people who were wilfully and cruelly put to death watching a World Cup match on TV that sunny evening of June 18, 1994.