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Loughinisland families' relief as judges rule Ombudsman report stands

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Floral tributes outside the Heights Bar after the UVF massacre in 1994

Floral tributes outside the Heights Bar after the UVF massacre in 1994

Floral tributes outside the Heights Bar after the UVF massacre in 1994

Families of those killed in the Loughinisland massacre have expressed relief after a court ruled that a Police Ombudsman's report on the attack would stand.

The Court of Appeal determined the then Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire "overstepped the mark" in finding RUC officers committed criminal acts of collusion with loyalists behind the killings.

But judges rejected a bid by two retired senior policemen to quash the watchdog's entire public statement on the atrocity.

They accepted it had been appropriate for the Ombudsman to acknowledge what he had uncovered was in line with the views of the victims' families on corrupt relationships between security force personnel and the terrorist killers.

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan identified three sections in the disputed report where he went beyond his powers in reaching emphatic conclusions.

"The determinations he made in the three offending paragraphs... overstepped the mark by amounting to findings of criminal offences by members of the police force," Sir Declan said.

In a statement the Loughinisland families said: "The victims and survivors of the Loughinisland atrocity are relieved at the clear decision by the Court of Appeal not to quash the 2016 report of Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire."

Emma Rogan, whose father Adrian Rogan was among the victims, said families could now remember their loved ones with the "dignity they deserve".

UUP MLA Alan Chambers said it was "highly significant" that the court ruled the Ombudsman had "overstepped the mark" by attempting to connect RUC officers to criminal offences.

UVF gunmen opened fire at the Heights Bar in Loughinisland, Co Down, as their victims watched a World Cup football match in June 1994.

The men killed were: Adrian Rogan (34); Malcolm Jenkinson (53); Barney Green (87); Daniel McCreanor (59); Patrick O'Hare (35), and Eamon Byrne (39).

In June 2016 Ombudsman Dr Maguire said collusion between some officers and the loyalist terrorists was a significant feature in the murders.

He found no evidence police had prior knowledge, but identified "catastrophic failings" in the investigation.

Raymond White, representing the Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers' Association, and Ronald Hawthorne, a former sub-divisional police commander, have been involved in a long-running legal challenge to the published findings.

A first hearing resulted in a ruling in 2017 that the report was procedurally unfair and had failed to make clear its conclusions did not apply to Mr Hawthorne. At that time the watchdog agreed to remove any references to him to ensure he is not connected to any alleged wrongdoing.

A limited rehearing before a different judge focused only on issues around the extent of the powers to publish the findings.

In November 2018 a High Court judge rejected the retired officers' case that Dr Maguire had exceeded his legal remit and refused to quash the report.

Mr White and Mr Hawthorne mounted an appeal.

The former policemen's barrister stressed their complete support for the Ombudsman's role in scrutinising and holding officers to account. He argued, however, that the watchdog lacked the legislative authority to publish such "conclusive findings" in the Loughinisland report.

The Police Ombudsman simply does not have that power, counsel claimed.

Judges were told that an organ of the state was effectively finding police officers guilty.

Lawyers for the Ombudsman countered that the legislation allowed him to express an opinion on the alleged collusion.

Ruling on the appeal, Sir Declan said: "We consider that the emphatic conclusions reached by the Ombudsman in the three offending paragraphs go beyond mere modes of expression and exceed his powers.

"We do, nevertheless, uphold the decision of the judge at first instance not to strike down the public statement because of what was written therein."

A spokesman for the Police Ombudsman's office said it was "considering the judgment".

Belfast Telegraph