Loyalist killings: ‘If this case had been properly investigated by the RUC at the time, we wouldn’t be where we are now’

Decision not to prosecute ex-RUC officer linked to Glenanne Gang leaves victim’s family still seeking truth almost 50 years later

Trevor Brecknell was mid sing-song toasting the birth of his baby girl when a loyalist gang shot him dead in a south Armagh pub almost 50 years ago.

It was less than a week before Christmas 1975 and Brecknell, a 32-year-old Rolls-Royce fitter from Birmingham who had moved to Cullyhanna after meeting his wife, Ann, on a blind date, had just returned from hospital, where he visited his two-day-old daughter, Roisin.

“Happy Christmas you Fenian bastards,” shouted the killers as they threw a bomb and shot through the doors of Donnelly’s Bar in Silverbridge, also killing the pub owner’s teenage son, Michael Donnelly, and another man, Patsy Donnelly.

No one has ever been convicted of the murders, and for the past 25 years, Trevor Brecknell’s eldest son, Alan, has pursued the case, thought to be linked to the notorious Glenanne Gang made up of Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) members but also included some serving police officers from the former Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR).


On Wednesday, Alan Brecknell received a letter informing him that the North’s Public Prosecution Service (PPS) had decided not to prosecute a former RUC officer allegedly involved in the attack on Donnelly’s bar as well as seven other sectarian killings during the 1970s.

Rarely has the phrase justice delayed is justice denied rung more true

—  Alan Brecknell

The PPS decision followed an investigation by the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman into the conduct and actions of some former RUC officers in relation to murders carried out by the UVF gang, which was based at a farm in Glenanne, Co Armagh.

It was believed the gang was responsible for more than 120 killings, including the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings and the 1975 Miami Showband massacre.

For Brecknell, who was seven years old at the time of his father’s death and has a vivid memory of that Christmas – his mother laid presents out for him and his younger brother in a house “packed with people to support her” – the PPS decision came as “no surprise”.

“I didn’t expect that he would be prosecuted, but it did wind me a bit to be honest, even though I’ve said all along that I didn’t want to see anyone prosecuted. It’s more about truth recovery at this stage,” he told The Irish Times.

“But I do realise there are others out there who have campaigned for prosecutions and I know the impact it will have on them, as well as the impact on my family. It has played on my mind over the last number of days from when I heard first heard this was going to happen.

“If this case had been properly investigated by the RUC at the time, we wouldn’t be where we are now; we wouldn’t have gone through what we’ve gone through. Rarely has the phrase justice delayed is justice denied rung more true.”

The night before he received the PPS letter, Brecknell visited his 90-year-old mother to inform her of the likely outcome.

“She’s in good health and took the news stoically. She wasn’t expecting anything else.”

Ann Brecknell never remarried; while raising her three children, she also cared for her brother-in-law and sister-in-law who were seriously injured in the attack on Donnelly’s bar and had moved in with her in the aftermath of the killings.

“She doesn’t talk much about it but she would say that she remembers very little of the first two years after Roisin was born,” said Brecknell.

A quantity surveyor by profession, Brecknell works at the Pat Finucane Centre (PFC), which supports victims and survivors of the Troubles.

In a statement, the centre said the PPS decision was disappointing, adding that the murders were “not properly investigated at the time and, therefore, routes to justice 40 to 50 years later are negligible”.

The seven other cases connected to the ex-RUC officer that were referred to the PPS following the police watchdog investigation were those of: Thomas McNamee, who died of injuries sustained during a bomb attack on McArdle’s Bar in Crossmaglen in November 1974; Sean Farmer and Colm McCartney, two GAA fans who were killed at a dummy roadblock in south Armagh in August 1975; Anthony Reavey, Brian Reavey and John Martin Reavey, three brothers who were shot dead at their home in Whitecross, south Armagh, in January 1976, and Patrick Mone, who was killed in a car bomb in Castleblayney in March 1976.

In a statement, the PPS said the available evidence connecting the former police officer – referred to as “Officer A” – to a “number of bomb and gun attacks resulting in the deaths of 10 people” was “insufficient to provide a reasonable prospect of conviction”.

Martin Hardy, PPS assistant director, added: “The standard of proof required to obtain a conviction in a criminal prosecution is high. The prosecution must establish beyond a reasonable doubt, through admissible evidence, the commission of a criminal offence by the suspect. After careful consideration, it has been concluded that the available evidence is insufficient to provide a reasonable prospect of obtaining a conviction of Officer A for any offence.”

The key evidence consisted of a small number of documentary records containing allegations made by another person that the ex-RUC officer was involved in the killings, according to Mr Hardy.

“These allegations are, however, not in the form of witness evidence. Therefore, any prosecution of Officer A would require a hearsay application seeking the admission in evidence of these documentary records,” he said.

The PPS said it has offered to meet the victims’ families to address any concerns they have about its decision.

The NI Police Ombudsman’s Office said its investigation file was submitted to the PPS as part of the Operation Newham series, describing it as a “large and complex thematic investigation” into 55 public complaints over the conduct of former RUC officers during the period 1972-1978.

“This series examined the conduct, actions and decisions of police relating to a total of 125 murders and 56 attacks by the mid-Ulster UVF, including four attacks in the Republic of Ireland,” a spokesman said,

“The Ombudsman is continuing to work towards publicly reporting her findings and conclusions on the series, including those relating to the murders of these 10 men, in coming months.”

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Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times