Claims persist that some of Loughlinisland killers British agents

Legacy team of solicitors trawling through roll call of Troubles cases in pursuit of justice

 

Castle Street in Belfast is only minutes from Royal Avenue and City Hall, but it is a street in which the poverty which has outlasted the Troubles is evident. A red-headed homeless boy begs. Everybody, it seems, smokes.

The street is home to solicitors, KRW, run by Kevin Winter. Inside, the offices overflow with boxes and filing cabinets. The labels on those boxes are a sombre roll-call of the Troubles: Kingsmill, McGurk’s Bar, Omagh, Glenanne, Loughgall.

One of those boxes deals with the attack 22 years ago almost to the day as a crowd gathered in The Heights Bar in the small Co Down village of Loughinisland to watch Ireland’s game against Italy in the 1994 World Cup.

Members of the UVF burst in armed with assault rifles. Within seconds, six customers were dead and five lay wounded.

In the years since, it has been persistently claimed that some of the killers were British agents. Today, the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland, Dr Michael Maguire, will produce the findings of his investigation in the Ramada Hotel in Belfast, the latest inquiry into the killings.

However, past inquiries have offered little satisfaction: “The families have previously complained that they fear that the role of informers in the atrocity was not properly investigated,” says KRW solicitor Niall Murphy.

“The families already know from the failed Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland report in June 2011 that, far from securing and preserving evidence to build a case, the RUC were destroying evidence as they came across it,” he went on.

The Loughinisland families are but a few of those who have entered the third-floor offices of KRW over the years, where three red chairs sit side-by-side in the corridor at the top of the steep stairs.

On any ordinary day, loyalists, republicans, former members of the security forces can occupy, as they wait to meet with lawyers.

Sometimes, people who lost relatives can sit beside someone who might have been involved in the murder,

Northern conflict

Winter’s team of solicitors were front-and-centre last week in Solihull in the West Midlands as coroner Louise Hill ordered the resumption four decades later of the inquest into the deaths of 21 people at the hands of the IRA in Birmingham in 1974.

“We are litigating the past,” says Winter. “It is a poor cousin of truth recovery but in the context of the ongoing political impasse, it is all that is available to people.”

Two of the firm’s solicitors are representing families who lost relatives in the 1976 Kingsmill atrocity, when the IRA slaughtered 10 Protestant workmen on a darkened country road in Co Armagh.

Lay wounded

Robert Chambers

The IRA never admitted it was responsible for the massacre. Some of those reputedly involved at Kingsmill may have been informants and are known to have continued to be involved in republican “armed struggle” during the decades that followed.

The Kingsmill weapons were used in 37 other IRA murders and 22 attempted murders. Several of those allegedly involved later got controversial “on the runs” letters from the British government telling them they were not wanted for questioning.

“We have issued proceedings against the secretary of state [Theresa Villiers] in relation to the implementation of this scheme, which retraumatised many people,” said Winters.

It is expected that the long-awaited report from Maguire will show the attack was linked to an earlier one and that agents of the British security forces were involved in the Co Down killings.

“The starting point for many families we deal with is them saying, ‘We just want to know what happened’,” says solicitor Niall Murphy.

“It is depressing and devastating for them to find out that the state may have had a role in murders like these. But in a way, too, it is also liberating. They begin to have answers to their burning questions. It justifies the years of time and emotional effort they have invested in it,” he adds.

Lost faith

One of the solicitors is Darragh Mackin (26). A few years ago, his ambition was to run a men’s clothes shop. Now, just two years after qualification, he has been nominated for a major legal award in the United Kingdom. Despite his youth, he has already been well seasoned, representing some of the so-called “Hooded Men”, who claim that they were tortured by British forces during interrogations in the 1970s.

He has also represented families demanding a judicial review of allegations that agents of the British state were complicit with the Glenanne Gang, a group of loyalist killers who killed scores in The Troubles.

In addition, he has been involved in negotiations with the Irish Government on behalf of Ibrahim Halawa, the Irish national who has been in an Egyptian jail for three years and claimed this week that torture there was rampant.

“One of my big concerns is the perception that human rights are only for criminals,” he says. “In reality, it is the underprivileged of the world who need remedies for abuses of their rights.”

For Winters, however, the Fresh Start Agreement reached last Christmas at Stormont offered nothing to the victims and took away what had earlier been promised: “The British state is operating a policy of deny, delay, deprive.”

However, he delights in the independent stand taken by Northern Ireland Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, who has demanded that the money be found for properly funded inquests. Democratic Unionist First Minister, Arlene Foster has demurred.

A growing number of the firm’s clients are former members of the security forces. “These guys were part of the world of collusion,” says Winters. “They were also scapegoats. They handled agents who were then sent out to kill them.”

Murder squad

UlsterDefence AssociationJohnny Adair

Today, the former RUC officer believes most loyalist killings and a high proportion of republican ones were carried out with the foreknowledge of state agents.

In many cases, he says, it was “killing by proxy.” Another former officer has written about how criminal investigations often veered off course “into the dark” thwarted by special branch.

Another ex-officer, who wears runners and a royal navy baseball cap, carries a supermarket shopping bag emblazoned with a big elephant. The bag is full of documents. While he talks, he rifles through it.

“There’s a list of the army council there,” he’ll say, flinging a notebook across the table. “There’s the suicide note I wrote when I could take no more. There’s a cutting about the time I was held hostage.”

He could paper the walls with the threats received, he says.

In one case, evidence he obtained convicted a loyalist killer. “He pointed at me across the courtroom and said ‘I’ll put two in your face’,” he says.

Primed bomb

He says he found out he had been set up by the police to be killed. “I want the chief constable to apologise to me for what I was exposed to,” he says, adding with a bleak smile: “I want money for a head transplant.”

The legacy left by the Troubles is illustrated by another client. He shakes as he recalls being sent in the early 1980s as a newly qualified young policeman to the republican heartland of east Tyrone.

“It was like the Wild West. You were replacing dead officers killed by landmines. You lived in dorms with your machine gun by your bed.”

The ex-officer is taking a case alleging that the RUC special branch withheld information that put his life at risk.

The lawyers listen closely, noting recurring names, checking out conflicting accounts.