A new TV documentary has pointed to collusion between loyalists and the British Army in a bomb attack in Belturbet, in which two teenagers were killed.
Claims that the British army and RUC police co-operated with loyalists in attacks in the local area have a long history, but few details of investigations have ever emerged.
The documentary by Irish state broadcaster RTE, ‘Belturbet: A Bomb That Time Forgot’, investigated collusion between British forces and Fermanagh loyalists in a campaign of violence in 1972. Collusion was admitted in the destruction of Aghalane Bridge on a main border road through Cavan, a border crossing they believed was being used by the IRA.
Retired British Army Major Vernon Rees, speaking in 2005 of his time as Captain in command of British forces in west Fermanagh, recalled being approached in late 1972 by a unionist councillor who revealed that loyalist paramilitaries wanted to blow up the Bridge.
Rees said found himself contemplating whether he should “cooperate ... in the destruction of a main road in the United Kingdom. And I thought it would be wonderful if that bridge was down,” he admitted to an ‘oral history’ interview.
“So I leaked it through the [RUC] Special Branch again that there would be no soldiers on that bridge between eight o’clock this coming Thursday and midnight.”
He understood that the RUC would pass on the message, and so it came to pass. At the agreed time, loyalists ignited a bomb on the old stone bridge, but they failed to disable it. So Rees ordered a bomb disposal expert from his own unit to ‘finish off the job’.
In response, Cavan County Council requested Irish Army engineers to put in place a temporary bridge so that the road -- the main road from Donegal and Enniskillen to Dublin -- could be reopened. Cross-border traffic returned to Aghalane, using the temporary bridge in both directions. In response four days later, the paramilitary UDA drove a car bomb across the bridge to the border town of Belturbet, detonating it on Main Street without any warning.
The blast claimed the lives of fifteen-year-old Geraldine O’Reilly, a local girl who had stopped in town to buy a bag of chips, and sixteen-year-old Paddy Stanley, a lorry helper from Offaly who was calling his family from a public phone.
British Ministry of Defence files reveal that the Crown forces were aware of the UDA “commando type gang” who were responsible for the campaign of attacks in the area well before the Belturbet bomb.
Records released by the Ministry of Defence to the British National Archives identifies the leader of the gang as Billy McMurray, from the loyalist enclave of Rathcoole outside Belfast. McMurray was also linked to the murder less than two weeks earlier of Louis Leonard in Derrylin, County Fermanagh.
However, it was known four months earlier that Mr McMurray was the organiser behind the “UDA team” in Fermanagh and Tyrone. But nothing was done, and none of the information was shared with Gardaí in the South. McMurray passed away last year, aged 83.
At the time, an editorial in the Fermanagh Herald observed that: “People are not fools. They see Unionist terrorists doing pretty well what they please.”
Since then neither the British Army nor the RUC (nor its successor, the PSNI) have ever shared information with the Gardai Síochána that could have aided an inquiry into the bombing.
The PSNI have continued to refuse to say why and refused to directly respond to questions on the metter. The British Ministry of Defence also said it did not wish to comment on the matter.
The Gardai in turn failed to disclose any inforation to the families, claiming that the investigation is still “live” after more than four decades.
Gardaí argued that divulging information to the families could “interfere with the investigation ... [and] could reasonably be expected to affect adversely the security of the State, matters relating to Northern Ireland and the international relations of the State”.
It’s not an explanation that offers consolation to either family. “I think we have a right to know anyway,” said Paddy’s sister Greta Stanley. “I think we have a right to know that somebody tried to bring them to justice.”
“It just felt that there was nothing being done. Like it would have been the same if nobody had died,” said Anthony O’Reilly, who was with Geraldine, his youngest sister, on the night the car bomb exploded. “But my sister died.”
The minutes of a key border security meeting held two days after the Belturbet bomb –- which involved the British Army, the RUC and the UDR –– is to remain closed to the public until 2057, or 84 years in total.
Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Micheál Martin has said he will pursue answers on the Belturbet bombing in 1972 with the British government and Stormont, but notably failed to ask the Gardaí to say what they knew.
As the years roll on, the Stanley and O’Reilly families feel that time is running out for them finding justice.
The Stanley sisters are equally unhappy at what feels like a lack of progress. “I know there was a lot going on,” said Greta Stanley. “But he was still our brother. He deserved – and Geraldine O’Reilly – they both deserved justice. They both deserved something to be done about it and there wasn’t anything done about it. And unfortunately it looks like there never will.”
Local Sinn Féin MP Michelle Gildernew said the collusion allegations were “very concerning”.
“This case is symptomatic of the systemic collusion between British state forces and loyalist death squads, particularly in relation to attacks along the border,” she said.
“The families of the young people killed at Belturbet, like all victims, deserve to know the truth about the death of their loved ones. They have already waited too long.
“The new evidence and allegations raised in this documentary need to be investigated so that the families can get to the truth.”
Aontú Deputy leader Denise Mullen noted that the documentary attributed the failure of the Dublin government to release information to not wanting to impact their relationship with London.
“The Irish government has given plenty of speeches but have done nothing to follow up and check the actions of the Tories who allowed their armed forces and colluding allies off the hook,” she said.
“This year alone, the Tories have passed a Bill which blows a hole in the Good Friday Agreement, refused to prosecute the perpetrators of Bloody Sunday and bucked their own Courts by refusing to investigate the role of British collusion in the murder of Pat Finucane.
“The Tories certainly aren’t afraid of upsetting the Irish people or undermining their relations with the Irish state, why then are so we afraid to pursue justice for the victims of British crimes and collusion?”