As the anniversary of Loughinisland is remembered, a look at an extraordinary campaign for justice which continues to battle cover-up and collusion. For the Down Recorder.
Twenty-five years on, the families of those killed and people injured in the Loughinisland massacre by a loyalist gang say that time has gone by in a flash.
Relatives and supporters will return to The Heights Bar, still run by the O’Toole family, on Tuesday evening to pay their respects a quarter of a century after their lives were irretrievably changed and a community’s sense of peace shattered.
There won’t be the same craic as there was on the evening of June 18, 1994, when local people gathered to cheer on the Republic of Ireland playing Italy in the World Cup.
That was before men with assault rifles burst into the bar and fired indiscriminately, reportedly in retaliation for the killing of three UVF members by the INLA a few days before.
Instead, there will be a silent, dignified candlelit prayer service for the six men who died — Barney Green (87), Daniel McCreanor (59), Malcolm Jenkinson (53), Eamon Byrne (39), Patrick O’Hare (35) and Adrian Rogan (34) — the five men who were wounded and those who were left bereaved.
A Mass will be held at St Macartan’s Church for all those who lost their lives while individual families will also mark the anniversary privately.
Emma Rogan, now a Sinn Féin MLA for South Down, has become a prominent campaigner for the families’ justice group in the intervening years.
She was only eight years old when her father, Adrian, was murdered that fateful night.
A Down GAA fan, he had called into the bar to collect a ticket for a game the next day.
This October Emma will turn the same age her father was when he died and says that this year could be the one that will really hit home.
“It’s a strange thing to think about and I know it will hit me then,” she said. “I got married in January and it’s times like that you think about all the things that you’ve missed out on and he’s missed out on.
“The other families are the same I’m sure. Sometimes it’s only now you realise that those who died were really young men, even the ones in their fifties, you realise how much life they had ahead of them.”
Emma still has a treasured doll, complete in its original box, sitting on top of a wardrobe in her mother’s house. It’s the last thing that her father bought her during a holiday to Spain with her dad, mother Clare and older brother Tony.
“We came home on the Saturday morning from the holiday and he was shot that night,” said Emma. “It was our first foreign holiday as a family and we all have great memories of that. I got the doll before we came home but after what happened, I never played with it as I wanted to keep it good.
“He also taught us how to swim while we were away, so we are all so glad to have had that last experience with him.”
The Loughinisland justice group was formed 10 years after the incident, mostly as the bereaved wives and young mothers were so busy in rearing children. For the wounded, much-needed time was needed to heal physically and emotionally.
Like several other major atrocities during the Troubles no-one has yet been arrested or brought before the courts for the attack.
Emma, along with the six to eight core members of the Loughinisland Justice Group representing the affected families, has been through two separate investigations by the Police Ombudsman.
The first in 2011 reported that while there were major police failings, there was no police collision with the UVF. Then the 2016 report led by Police Ombudsman Michael Maguire found that there had been police collision and the initial investigation hampered by the need to protect informers.
The controversial 2017 documentary film, No Stone Unturned, went even further, naming the suspects, one of whom was a soldier and one who was an informer.
The Loughinisland Justice group say that the heavy-handed arrests last year of journalists Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney re-opened old wounds, even though the High Court in Belfast last week threw out the claims that the men had illegally obtained certain information.
There have been many times when the justice group, who have taken their fight for justice and truth to America and Europe, have wearied of the challenge.
“It just seems to be an uphill battle all the time, even as far as the last few weeks when it was played out in court with the arrest of Barry and Trevor Birney,” said Emma, who helped carry a banner when the group took part in the weekend’s Time for Truth march in Belfast.
“The massacre had been on the front pages of newspapers for nearly three weeks. That’s not easy for any of us to live with, particularly for the more elderly relatives of the victims. It’s not easy for them to relive that, as well as the likes of Aidan O’Toole who was injured that night and witnessed it.
“When you hear things in court like the people who perpetrated this ‘had the mere misfortunate to be terrorists’, you think of poor Barney Green who had just come from Mass and was having a bottle of Guinness and a half ‘un. What misfortune did he have that night when he was shot in the back? It just beggars belief.
“There are times when we come out of court sometimes really deflated. I have said that I’m not sure if I would ever advise anyone else to take on what we have done.
“But then are are times when you think you absolutely have to keep going as it’s the right thing to do.”
She added that the justice group were angry at learning from a recent Policing Board meeting that £320,000 was spent in the arrest of the two journalists.
“That is scandalous. I would be interested to know how much was spent going after the perpetuators in the last 12 months?”
For Emma, it’s essential that the full truth of what happened leading up to the attack and afterwards is known.
“The narrative now about the conflict is that the security forces were the peacekeepers between the IRA and UVF. That’s not the case,” she said.
“The people behind Loughinisland were helped to orchestrate and carry this out. When I’m not here, I want that to be known on the public record. Someone needs to be held accountable.”
She said that the justice group is even more resolute today to pursue truth and justice.
“The mood is probably stronger now than it ever was due to the fact that we have learnt so much,” added Emma.”When we look back to when we first started, we think ‘if only we knew then what we knew now’. We never would have known anything had we not set out to get the truth.”
Aidan O’Toole was taking a shift behind the bar in his family-owned bar that night 25 years ago.
He was 25 and had a 14 month-old baby and a seven-week baby. His father was away in Romania, helping to build orphanages. The likelihood is high that he too would have been killed or injured had he been there.
Aidan still carries a bullet in his kidney from the shooting and says the memory is something that stays with him everyday.
“I’m still recovering and it never goes away from you,” he said. “You just have to tear away. What else can you do? “We never thought we would be still campaigning for the truth 25 years later. It all seems like yesterday. The 25 years have flown in, it’s gone as a flash.”
“I just want the people who done it to be brought to justice and put before the courts. I know they will only do two years in prison but that’s immaterial. We accepted the Good Friday Agreement and to let people out of jail in two years and we did that for peace.”
He agrees that the recent court hearing for the No Stone Unturned journalists has opened old wounds.
“I felt really sorry for Barry and Trevor. I think it was a disgrace that they were arrested and the way they were arrested with 40 officers at their doors. They were just journalists doing their job. When they started, they didn’t know what they would uncover and neither did we. The police should be investigating the people who actually did the shooting.
“If anything happened to me, my children would definitely carry the campaign on. My wife Louise is very strong and she would push it on as well.”
His message to the judicial system: “Just give us justice and go and arrest the people who did it.”