By Barry McCaffrey (for the Detail)
For 12 years the Loughinisland families silently mourned the loss of their loved ones. They kept that silence, they say, because of police assurances that no stone would be left unturned in the hunt for the killers.
Dan McCreanor had been anxious to take his 87 year-old uncle Barney Green out for a final drink before he went into hospital days later for an operation.
To mark the occasion, Barney Green had put on his best suit.
The pensioner was the first person killed in the attack as he’d been sitting at the door of the bar when the gunmen burst in.
Moira Casement recalled how her uncle had liked to sit in his favourite seat at the door of the quiet country bar.
“I used to take them to weddings and always on the way home, if it was up this part of the world, you called in for the last drink in the pub,” she said.
“I only ever remember him sitting in that particular seat.
“He was blasted; they just pumped the bullets into him.
“It was just unbelievably horrific.”
Clare and Adrian ‘Frosty’ Rogan had returned from a Spanish holiday earlier that day.
The father-of-two had only gone to the bar to collect a ticket for a GAA match the next day.
Clare Rogan had been on her way to join her husband at O’Tooles as the attack was taking place.
“I arrived at the pub just a few minutes after it had happened and a neighbour was going in as I approached.
“He came back out and said ‘don’t be going in, there’s been a shooting’.
“In my mind I thought that somebody had been out shooting rabbits and a gun had went off accidentally.
“I had absolutely no idea what was awaiting when I went in.
“When I went in, or at least I tried to go in, I’ll never forget what I saw.
“Aidan O’Toole was one of the first people I met and he just said ‘we need help, we need to get an ambulance, we need a clergyman’.
As his father Hugh had left Loughinisland earlier that week to help rebuild an orphanage in Romania Aidan O’Toole had been serving customers in the family bar when the gunmen burst in.
“I came out and Frosty was lying over the counter,” he said.
“Barney and the others were piled up down below the bar.
“Frosty was lying down on the ground over the counter.
“Barney, Patsy and Eamon were lying piled up on top of each other.
“I phoned 999 for the ambulance and just told them there’s been a shooting.”
Eamon Byrne and his brother-in-law Patrick O’Hare had gone to the pub together that night.
Eamon Byrne died from seven bullet wounds, six shots hitting him in the back.
At the time of the attack his wife had still been receiving hospital treatment, having just given birth to their fourth child a few weeks earlier.
Patsy O’Hare’s father was one of the first to arrive after the attack.
He later described the scene as he cradled his son as he lay dying:
“I lifted his anorak and put it under his head.
“I asked him if he was all right.
“He said he wasn’t too bad.
“I stayed with my son until someone put their hand on my shoulder.
“I think it was a paramedic.”
A bullet remains lodged in his kidney as a lasting reminder of the horrific events.
Recalling the effect the attack had on the tiny mixed rural community, he said:
“Our Protestant neighbours were devastated as much as we were.
“When I was in hospital, I had as many visits from Protestants as I did from Catholics.”
Moira Casement remembers how the sleepy farming village had largely escaped the Troubles before the attack.
“Nothing like that had ever happened,” she said.
“Yes, the Troubles had been going on in Belfast and you seen the news, but it hadn’t really touched on the lives of us in the country.”
The families were initially optimistic that police would quickly bring the killers to justice.
“We were told no stone would be left unturned; police told us ‘we’ll bring these people to justice, we’re doing all we can’,” said Clare Rogan.
“At one stage we were told, ‘you will hear very shortly, somebody’s going to be in court before long’.
“But after a while all that seemed to just peter away.”
After a decade the initial spate of arrests had ended and the investigation appeared to the families to have run into quicksand.
The families began to have serious concerns that there were major failures in the murder investigation.
“The more we learnt, the more horrific it got,” recalled Moira Casement.
“We realised that there was collusion, cover ups.
“We didn’t know how to deal with this.
“This was foreign to our nature, to have to drag information out.
“We did find out a lot of alarming facts.”
In 2006 police told the families that the getaway car had been destroyed two years after the attack, despite being held for safe keeping in a local police station.
The families were informed this was normal police practice.
They were also told that documents relating to the case had been destroyed while stored at Gough Barracks RUC station because of concerns they could be contaminated by asbestos.
Despite having recovered the getaway car, murder weapons and balaclavas, no one was ever charged with the attack.
Highlighting the families’ belief that there had never been any proper police investigation into the killings, solicitor Niall Murphy said:
“Within six weeks of the atrocity all the significant exhibits had been retrieved intact, not burnt out.
“It seemed inevitable that there would be a breakthrough in terms of charges and prosecutions.
“Indeed, one could not consider any further evidence which any investigating police could have hoped to come across, other than bar perhaps the killers standing and waiting and confessing.”
Expressing disbelief that the getaway car had been destroyed two years after the shooting, he said:
“ I cannot conceive of any police policy that would reconcile it with destroying the most significant exhibit in a mass murder investigation within two years of the atrocity when the families were being told that the investigation was live.
“It was a preposterous, crazy, inexplicable, inexcusable decision.”
In September 2009 Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson had been due to release his report into the Loughinisland attack.
The report had been expected to identify major failures in the original police investigation, including the loss of key evidence and the failure to properly interview key witnesses.
However, it was expected to stop short of concluding that there had been security force collusion in the events surrounding Loughinisland.
Northern Ireland’s first Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan, Britain’s most senior police officer John Stevens and retired Canadian judge Peter Cory, had all previously defined collusion as being the actions of security forces members before and after the event.
Highlighting the need for the forces of law and order to be seen to be above reproach, Judge Cory outlined his definition of collusion:
“Because of the necessity for public confidence in the army and police, the definition of collusion must be reasonably broad when it is applied to actions of these agencies.
“This is to say that army and police forces must not act collusively by ignoring or turning a blind eye to the wrongful acts of their servants or agents.”
However the families raised concerns that the ombudsman had chosen to define collusion only in terms of whether police had failed to act on prior information which could have prevented the killings.
They insist that the ombudsman’s definition of collusion should include the actions of police after the attack.
This would prove to be crucial, following the emergence of allegations that the missing getaway car was being hidden at the home of a serving police officer.
In 2009 witness ‘A’ approached the Loughinisland families with new information and agreed to co-operate with the Police Ombudsman’s investigation.
“This person just approached me one day in a shopping centre and said: ‘I saw you on the television. I see you have been trying to find out what happened in Loughinisland.’
“I was completely gob smacked.
“They had discovered that this policeman had the vehicle that was allegedly involved, stored in their yard, even though we had been told it was destroyed.
“I was completely gob smacked, I was seeing stars.
“I could hardly take it in, disbelief.
“Up to now we had been told that there was no evidence, there was nothing, no witnesses.
“We were told there were a lot of witnesses, but nobody had given any concrete evidence of who they were or what they looked like or anything else.
“But then we discovered this person had made a statement very shortly after it, a very detailed explanation of what the person, the driver looked like.
“But that was never followed up.”
Nearly 17 years on from the attack, the Loughinisland families say they are now more convinced than ever that the killers were protected.
They say that police have repeatedly refused to discuss allegations that informers were involved in the attack.
One of the suspected gunmen had previously been questioned about the Shankill Butcher murders nearly 20 years before.
Two police informers have now been implicated in the attack on Loughinisland.
In the first instance a self-confessed informer, codenamed the ‘Mechanic’, admitted that he had possession of the getaway car in the days before the killing.
However, he insisted that the car had been sold on prior to the attack and that he had no knowledge of the Loughinisland killings.
A second informer is now alleged to have driven the killers’ getaway car.
This man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, has previous convictions for rape.
In the late 1990s he was jailed for drug offences, but had that sentence reduced by royal prerogative.
He also stood trial in connection with another loyalist murder case but the trial collapsed after the withdrawal of a key witness.
Police sources have confirmed to the Detail that he was placed on a witness protection scheme after being released from prison.
It is understood he was not arrested in connection with Loughinisland, despite his name being linked to the attack.
Moira Casement said there was disbelief when the families were first informed that the Loughinisland murder suspect had later received a reduced prison sentence as a result of Royal Prerogative.
“It only made us more convinced that there were dirty dealings,” she said.
“Why was he given a pardon, given the list of crimes which I can’t go into, but it all made us very suspicious.”
Five years after being asked to investigate the police failure to bring the killers to justice, the ombudsman has delayed the Loughinisland report once again.
The families remain unconvinced it will bring the truth about the deaths of their loved ones.
“In my heart I would like to be able to say that I expect to find out the truth, but we have been let down so often that I don’t think that’s going to happen,” said Clare Rogan.
“So many times before we have been told, you know, we are doing our best, but every time we ask a question or we go so far, another door’s closed in our face.
“I just feel I wouldn’t be optimistic that that won’t happen again.”
Patrick McCreanor remains sceptical the ombudsman’s report will bring justice to the families.
“It’ll shed light on some things.
“I think the ombudsman’s hands are tied to what they can possibly say.
“There’s a big can of worms here and it needs to be opened and brought into the public domain exactly what has went on here.”