The police ombudsman's report into the murder of six Catholic men in Loughinisland, Co Down in 1994 has identified collusion as a significant feature of the killings.
The 160-page report by Dr Michael Maguire examining allegations of Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) collusion, published on Thursday, also revealed police informants at the most senior levels within loyalist paramilitary organisations were involved in the importation of guns and ammunition.
On June 18th, 1994, six men died when UVF gunmen entered the Heights Bar in the village, armed with assault rifles and sprayed bullets indiscriminately at customers watching Ireland play Italy in a televised World Cup football match.
Adrian Rogan (34), Patrick O'Hare (35), Eamon Byrne (39), Malcolm Jenkinson (53), Daniel McCreanor (59) and 87-year-old Barney Greene were killed.
Five others were seriously injured.
Thursday's report is the second produced by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland.
Findings in the 2011 report by former ombudsman Al Hutchinson that while there were majoring police failings, there was no evidence of collusion with the gunmen, was quashed at the High Court after a legal challenge by the murdered men's families.
The families believed the police had failed to properly investigate the murders in order to protect police informants but Mr Hutchinson’s report did not even mention Special Branch.
Dr Maguire said he had “no hesitation in saying collusion was a significant feature of the Loughinisland murders”.
He has taken the definition of collusion to be that given by Justice Smithwick, a definition accepted by the PSNI.
“Many of the individual issues I have identified in this report, including the protection of informants through wilful acts and the passive turning a blind eye; fundamental failures in the initial police investigation and the destruction of police records, are in themselves evidence of collusion as defined by Justice Smithwick,” Dr Maguire said.
The report questions how a huge arms shipment from South Africa in the 1980s ended up in the hands of loyalist terrorists.
The shipment of AK-47s, pistols, rocket lauchers, war heads and ammunition was brought into Northern Ireland by Ulster Resistance, the UDA and UVF in 1987.
Two thirds of the weapons were recovered quickly but the others were used in attacks by loyalist paramilitaries.
The report said two of the weapons from the shipment were connected to the UVF attack on the Heights Bar, and other terrorist incidents.
The ombudsman’s investigation established that within 24 hours of the attack, Special Branch provided detectives with the names and details of people they believed responsible but the was a significant delay inarresting the suspects and subsequent evidence gathering opportunities were missed.
He said there was a “catastrophic failure” in the early stages of the police suspect strategy.
He agreed with the bereaved families that police failed to keep them properly informed on the progress of the investigation and failed to conduct an effective investigation.
PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton said those officers involved in collusion should be held to account. Mr Hamilton said he accepted the report’s findings, acknowledging that it made for uncomfortable reading.
"The Police Service of Northern Ireland fully supports the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland," he said. "It is an essential part of the mechanisms by which the PSNI can be held to account and, as such, I accept his report and findings into the brutal attack carried out at the Heights Bar, Loughinisland, on 18 June 1994.
“In 2011, we accepted the findings of the previous Poni (Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland) report into the murders and conducted a further review of the case as a result. We apologised to the families at that time and I offer my sincere apologies to them once again today, for both the investigative failings and that collusion was a significant feature of the Loughinisland murders.
“This report makes uncomfortable reading, particularly in relation to the alleged actions of police officers at the time. The Ombudsman has stated that collusion was a feature of these murders in that there were both wilful and passive acts carried out by police officers. This is totally unacceptable and those responsible should be held accountable.
“I want to reassure the families and the public that I have co-operated fully with the Ombudsman and I will continue to do so if he determines to take this further. It would therefore be inappropriate for me to comment in detail, pending the outcome of any potential further criminal investigation by the Ombudsman on this matter.
“These were appalling murders carried out by those with evil intent and I am very aware of the hurt and anger felt by the families of those killed and those injured. The PSNI remains firmly committed to apprehending those responsible for these murders and appeal to the community for information to allow us to do so.”