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Loughinisland massacre: journalists arrested, killers remain free

The Northern Irish police told grieving families of the victims of the Loughinisland massacre that there would be “no stone unturned” in their pursuit of the paramilitary killers who gunned down six innocent men in 1994. The police lied. What followed was a cruel charade of an investigation, characterised by police collusion with paramilitary informers, destruction of vital evidence and a “slow waltz” attitude to questioning suspects and releasing information to further the investigation. When two journalists named the suspects involved in the murders, the police, instead of opening an investigation into the original murders, decided to arrest the journalists instead.

That was the disturbing story shared with the audience at a screening of the film No Stone Unturned, which documents the Loughinisland massacre and the subsequent collusion between paramilitary informers and the police which led to the killers escaping identification and justice. Barry McCaffrey, one of the journalists arrested over the film, attended the screening at the Three Minute Theatre in Manchester and spoke to the audience of his experience investigating the massacre and his subsequent arrest over the film. Joining him on the platform was Professor Chris Frost, chair of the National Union of Journalists Ethics Council, who had recently raised the case at the Trades Union Congress in Manchester, explaining the threat it posed to press freedom and the detrimental effects it was having on the journalists involved.

No Stone Unturned

No Stone Unturned begins with a depiction of the massacre itself. In June 1994 three Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) paramilitaries dressed in balaclavas and blue overalls pull up outside The Heights Bar in Loughinisland. The pub is full of people enjoying a pint while watching the World Cup match between the Republic of Ireland and Italy. The gunmen enter and spray the bar with automatic weapons fire, shooting many of the men in the back as they were watching the TV screen. The killers flee the bar laughing, jumping into a red Triumph Acclaim to make their getaway.

The attack, with its World Cup connection, made world-wide news, and the film shows politicians and policeman promising they will bring the killers to justice, but for the families left behind no justice comes; they are left to gather evidence themselves and asking questions of a police force who did not appear to be interested in solving the case. The victims’ families and those helping them have gathered evidence suggesting that collusion between the police and an informer within the UVF may be a factor behind the failed investigation. Also revealed is that the car used in the shooting, a major piece of evidence that had not been fully analysed for evidence, has been destroyed by the police, as have their primary notes concerning the investigation.

Their hopes are raised when a Police Ombudsman’s report into the massacre is scheduled to be released in September 2009.  Its release is as problematic as the investigation into the massacre itself, as initial revelations of major failings in the police investigation are subsequently denied and publication of the report is postponed. It is eventually published in June 2011, and though criticising the police’s investigation, it is widely regarded as a whitewash. Niall Murphy, the solicitor for the victims’ families, is seen in the film speaking at a press conference after the release saying “The ombudsman has performed factual gymnastics to ensure there was no evidence of collusion in his conclusion”.

The second Police Ombudsman’s report, published in June 2016, proves the first one was a whitewash. The film shows the new Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, addressing a crowded room full of the victims’ families and saying “I have no hesitation in unambiguously determining that collusion is a significant feature of the Loughinisland murders”. The report also states that although the RUC Special Branch had identified five suspects the day after the attack, they did not begin to be arrested till one month after the attack, meaning opportunities to gain evidence were lost, and no one was charged. It confirms that one of the suspects was an informer for the Special Branch, and that this was a reason why the Special Branch, in order to protect their source, did not pass on relevant information to the investigators.

The suspected killers warned and named

Crucially the Ombudsman’s reports did not name any of the suspects or security forces involved. Suspects were referred to by a letter of the alphabet, and security services were referred to by a number.

It was McCaffrey who received the piece of evidence that enabled the documentary makers to identify the suspected killers. He received an anonymous document through the post that contained information from a draft of the Ombudsman’s report that enabled them to identify the three men UVF gang who are the prime suspects for carrying out the attack:

  • Ronnie Hawthorne –named as the man pulling the trigger of the Czech VZ58 assault rifle
  • Gorman McMullan –named as the getaway driver
  • Alan Taylor – another member of the gang, who disappeared some time after the attack and cannot be traced

Trevor Birney, the other journalist arrested, was a co-producer of the film with McCaffrey. Six months prior to releasing the film they both met with the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and told them they would be naming the suspected killers in the film. The PSNI said to them that as long as they did not name the informer within the gang there would not be a problem. Six weeks before the film was released they also sent letters to all the suspects who were named in the film, and received no response back from them. Ronnie Hawthorne did lodge complaints against press organisations who reported on the findings of the film, but lost in all the decisions. McCaffrey says that all the way through the pre-release of the film they were expecting some sort of legal challenge or injunction occurring, but none came. No Stone Unturned was released in November 2017, but has not yet been aired on terrestrial television in the UK.

The arrest

The power of the state manifested itself in full force on 31 August for McCaffrey, Birney and their families, when up to 100 police officers, some of them armed, carried out dawn raids on their homes and the offices of Birney’s Fine Point Films, and the offices of McCaffrey’s The Detail investigative news site and Below the Radar Media.

McCaffrey woke up thinking it was going to be a normal day; his preparations for work were disturbed by throngs of police entering his home, searching through his belongings and bagging up electronic equipment – tools essential for his trade. Still in his dressing gown, he had to wash and change his clothes under the watch of a policeman. He was led out of his house in Belfast into the street swarming with police, some in positions in trees across the road. McCaffrey was understandably concerned about what his neighbours must be thinking: what had he done to deserve all this? He recalls being led past a local woman walking her dog as he was led to the vehicle. The experience was a traumatic one for McCaffrey, who is a seasoned investigative journalist, he is used to reporting the news – not being the news. He recalled bumping into the woman from that morning walking her dog in the park after he had been released: his voice cracked and his eyes welled up as he recalled her pulling him to her and giving him a hug; an embrace that released a lot of the tension built up around the feared stigma of the arrest.

It was the raised voice of Birney, half way down the wing in the cells, expressing surprise at having to take of his shoes and belt to go to the toilet, which alerted McCaffrey that his colleague had also been arrested. And it was from his solicitor, while still in his cell, that he learned the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), had already released a statement condemning the arrest. McCaffrey explained what the support of the union meant to him and his case:

“The cops don’t give a shit about me or Trevor or what my family or my community says, but what they do care about is the international pressure and the pressure from unions and politicians. Police don’t like it when the pressure comes back on them, and one of the major supporting factors has been the support from the NUJ and from the TUC.

It is the effects on Birney’s children that McCaffrey believes is the biggest injustice of the “over the top” way this case has been pursued:

“Trevor’s children are put out of their beds at seven in the morning, taking some of their homework, taken an eight year old girls phone, stuff that they didn’t really need to do… the impact that it has had on the children, the children are just sick of it, they have been psychologically damaged by it.”

McCaffrey and Birney were arrested on suspicion of theft, handling stolen goods, the unlawful disclosure of information (relating to Official Secrets Act legislation) and the unlawful obtainment of personal data. All these accusations arise from the use of the information sent to McCaffrey anonymously which enabled the killers to be identified in the film. The PSNI claim this document was stolen from the Ombudsman’s offices, and that the Ombudsman reported this theft to the PSNI. Both journalists were released without being charged on pre-charge bail; this means their movements are monitored and Barry had to inform the Durham constabulary, who carried out the arrests, that he was travelling to Manchester three days before he left Belfast.

The consequences

McCaffrey says the travel restrictions are having a worse effect on Birney (he gestures to a chair as he says this as if Birney is there), who travels to America regularly with his work for Fine Point Films; based in Belfast, he employs forty people. McCaffrey paraphrases the sort of pressure Birney is receiving during the police investigation: “Trevor, if you get a conviction that is the end of America”.

Their reputation as journalists are also at stake: both have decades of investigative experience under their belts, and that reputation relies on them protecting their sources of information for all the investigations they have undertook. This is why Frost and the NUJ applied legal pressure early to prevent the police searching for information through some of the equipment seized. Frost described the importance of this during his speech at the TUC congress:

“Without source protection, investigative journalism becomes very difficult if not impossible. Journalists rely on whistle-blowers – people with a conscience, or some other motive, who seek to expose wrong-doing but who do not want to ruin their own lives and those of their families.

“It is widely accepted throughout the world that this is an important protection. The European Court of Human Rights has instructed the British government on several occasions to ensure journalists in the UK are not obliged by the courts to reveal sources, to no avail.”

Frost believes modern technology and the power of the state to seize information from that technology is a serious threat to source protection, and that the information the state seizes for one police investigation may provide evidence that could potentially identify the sources from many other unrelated investigations.

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Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s conflicted stance on the free press was also criticised by Frost. Hunt had spoken in the commons about the important role of journalism in exposing the bad things those in authority do not want exposed. Frost’s response was:

“But he was talking about Myanmar not the UK, ignoring the fact that whilst he was condemning the arrests of journalists there, NUJ members Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney were being arrested in Northern Ireland for the alleged theft of confidential documents; government documents about a matter of serious public Interest that should have been reported to the public.

“It speaks volumes about this government that they can publicly chastise other countries whilst failing to condemn the same outrage in the UK. And the arrest of two hard-working union members carrying out an important investigation involving police collusion with paramilitary groups in the murder of UK citizens is nothing short of an outrage.”

Sympathy for the devil?

While the police have been arresting, interrogating, and keeping McCaffrey and Birney under surveillance on pre-charge bail, their actions towards the suspected killers have been far more cordial. The PSNI visited Ronnie Hawthorne before they arrested the two journalists and asked him  how he was feeling about the revelations of the film, and whether he wanted the police to investigate the case further, Hawthorne replied he did. McCaffrey has seen the transcript of this meeting, he says:

“The whole way through this interview they never ask him ‘by the way Ronnie did you kill these people’? It’s the only interview that is still surviving of Ronnie Hawthorne with the PSNI, because they destroyed all the other interviews, from 1996, because they said they thought there might be asbestos in them, so they burned all the interview notes.”

Cracks appearing in a shaky case

The interview notes between the police and the journalists are no doubt safely tucked away, but the information gathered in them is limited as McCaffrey and Birney carried out “no comment” interviews, with their lawyer saying what needed to be said. During that interview, the document allegedly stolen from the Ombudsman’s office was repeatedly shown to McCaffrey and his lawyer, while they pointed out similarities between the sentences, facts and phrases used in the Ombudsman’s document, and the document McCaffrey had received – sections of which appeared in the film. McCaffrey reports that his lawyer pointed out a glaring flaw in their logic, saying “the documents you have it says classified, it says secret, and all the screen grabs you are taking from the film don’t: it’s not the same thing”.

Further doubt was cast on the case shortly before McCaffrey came to Manchester to speak.  He had been informed that Maguire, the Police Ombudsman for NI, had never reported the theft of documents from his office. This was later reported in the Irish Times, which also reported that the Durham police had said “the investigation is solely into the alleged theft from the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland”.

Film fidelity

McCaffrey told the full house at the Three Minute Theatre screening on 31 October that he still had full confidence in the accuracy of the facts in No Stone Unturned. He raises the example of Jimmy Bins who appeared in the film, a retired Northern Ireland policeman who was present at the belated police interview of Ronnie Hawthorne after the murders. Binns reported that the detective questioning Hawthorne spent a large part of the interview trying to convince Hawthorne to kill a suspected member of the Irish Republican Army. Binns also recounts two detectives telling him a few weeks after the attack that they knew it was going to happen. McCaffrey says:

“The police, the chief constable, nobody has ever called Jimmy Binns a liar. There is not one fact in that film that the PSNI or the retired Police Officers Association or anybody has ever challenged, not one.  It’s mad because if they were able to say we had got one thing wrong they could totally discredit the whole film.”

The case continues

Both McCaffrey and Birney are due to return to the police for further questioning on 30 November. Their solicitor, Niall Murphy, believes that the fact the complaint was never made by Maguire, saying it “undermines the entire integrity of the decision” of the police to pursue the arrests, and that he now plans to call for the arrests to be declared as unlawful.

The one regret that McCaffrey and Birney have about the outcome from the film is that their arrest has taken the focus away from what the film is about, McCaffrey says:

“We shouldn’t be anywhere near this story. It’s about the eight people, there were six in Loughinisland and two people before, who were killed through no fault of their own. None of them were connected to anything, they were just innocent people, and the state could have protected them, the state should have protected them. The state could have brought the killer to justice… and they didn’t. This could be Manchester this could be Glasgow, it doesn’t matter where it is, the state is supposed to protect its citizens, and it didn’t, that is the whole thing about it.”

 

Conrad Bower

The screening of No Stone Unturned at the Three Minute Theatre was organised by the Manchester and Salford Branch of the NUJ: @NUJMcrSalford

The full film of No Stone Unturned can be seen on online – click here

Find out what else is on at The Three Minute Theatre – click here

Conrad Bower is a member of the National Union of Journalists

Feature Image: Composite constructed from Youtube screenshots of No Stone Unturned film and publicity material for the film

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